Bears are everywhere these days. Stephen Colbert rails against them, and from Brooklyn's Grizzly Bear to Arkansas's own Bear Colony, it seems like they're taking over. From Memphis comes Giant Bear, and judging by their performance Saturday night at Whitewater Tavern, they have a few things with which to differentiate themselves from the other sleuths of bears out there.
Their tunes were an inspired mix of rock, bluegrass, funk and even a hint of classical. What sets the five-piece “Orchestral Funkabilly” band apart from the norm is their inclusion of cello and violin, courtesy of vocalist Jana Misener. Most of the other musicians traded instruments throughout the show, and lead vocal duties were shared as well between Misener, mandolinist/guitarist Mike Larrivee and bassist Robert Humphreys. Only the drummer, Jeff Nuckolls, and guitarist Jeff White stayed put on their respective instruments. For a few songs, Scotty Gerardy from opening act DirtFoot on baritone saxophone, joined the group. Cello, mandolin, and baritone sax are three instruments that don't often find themselves playing in the same band, and it is a credit to the band's sense of adventure that they can make it work.
The group's diversity was further highlighted by their choice of cover tunes. Halfway through their hour-long set, the band tore into “Head Like a Hole” by Nine Inch Nails, a song that works surprisingly well in a country-song format. And with the saxophone added to the mix, a certain propulsion was lent to the proceedings that broke up the traditional bounce of bluegrass rhythm. If Morphine came from Tennessee instead of Massachusetts, the sound might be something similar.
Misener was the standout performer of the group, belting out the evening's other cover tune, a raucous version of Dolly Parton's “Jolene,” with backing harmonies by Larrivee, Humphreys and White. The band was at their best on this song as drummer Nuckolls laid down tight funk rhythms underneath the otherwise conventional bluegrass instrumentation. Unfortunately, for much of the show, Misener's distinctive cello remained buried in the mix underneath the bass guitar. Her violin playing, however, was fiery and virtuosic. This stood in contrast to guitarist White, whose improvisations seemed hesitant and somewhat out of tune. Tuning problems overall seemed to follow the group, particularly with the multi-part harmonies.
Through it all, the band remained energetic as they plowed through their set. Their willingness to experiment with disparate styles and timbres, as well as their overall exuberance, generally outweighed any auditory uncertainties. Saturday's show ran too quickly into the 1 a.m. closing time, and the crowd was left wanting more rampage from Giant Bear.