Bluegrass Grows in Brooklyn

Five Deadly Venoms
Five Deadly Venoms

The afternoon smelled like mist and mountain as we drove into Floyd, Virginia. The previous night massive thunderstorms had ravaged the region. That our plane had even flown through from Chicago was an act of fortunate, albeit close call timing. Fabian and I had just DJ’d the Chicago World Music Festival, en route to meet up with our friends on the eastern leg of the Asian Massive tour. Policemen in Stetson hats and tight Levi’s placed orange cones across what they might have termed “highways”. We pulled around to the back of the stage—across a lot of mud—where Karsh Kale and Cheb i Sabbah were preparing for their sets.

Their performances went over well. Cheb had a handful of bellydancers waving fabric like glow sticks, keeping warm in the cool autumn atmosphere by undulating vigorously to his bhangra and South Asian electronic beats. Karsh played with his live band. The small crowd of a few hundred clapped appreciatively, some spinning furious hippie breakdances in thick and deeply brown mud that rested at the base of the stage. There was much more room than people; I was offered two reasons from locals. First, the storms had kept people away. Second, tomorrow is when the festival really starts. Saturday, I was told, meant bluegrass.

I wish I could have stayed to see what this renowned festival was all about. Alas, the tour hit DC the next night; we had legwork on the highways. I’d long had a distant appreciation and somewhat of a fascination with bluegrass. Working as an editor of the now-defunct world music magazine Global Rhythm for over two years, it was one of the American-bred genres often sent for review consideration. Lo-fi recordings of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs were in the magazine’s library. Of course, there was Alison Krauss, perhaps my first real introduction to the sound, like many of my generation.

A few weeks ago a friend forwarded me the website of a bluegrass band she recently saw perform, dubbed the Five Deadly Venoms. Fair enough—any band naming itself after a cult kung fu movie is worth checking out. Within two minutes of listening to the mournful strains of “This Lonesome Road”, I was hooked. Turns out they were from Brooklyn—Brooklyn! A few days later, when I first contacted mandolin player/vocalist Elio Schiavo, I would find out he lived not four blocks from me in Park Slope. My first question was obvious.

“I just happened to be here when I started getting into bluegrass,” he told me, starting to ease my bafflement over Brooklyn-born bluegrass. Spending ten years in Santa Cruz after his Philadelphia upbringing, music brought him to New Orleans for two-and-a-half years, before he arrived in New York City in 2002. “I’ve always loved bluegrass, since I started getting into music in my teens. I played a lot of different styles until four, five years ago, when I picked up the mandolin. It was just by accident that I picked it up in New York City, but it just so happened that the bluegrass scene had been blowing up here. A lot of famous bluegrass players are actually living here.”

Growing up toying with the clarinet and saxophone, Schiavo’s instrument of choice would remain the guitar. He moved to California to seek out the “rock and hippie stuff” he was playing and, eventually, producing. For years he ran a studio, until moving to Oakland to take over a larger space. That idea did not go as planned, as Schiavo “could not make proper use of the space. We ended up renting it out to kids to throw raves.” His disenchantment with the west coast led him to New Orleans, where he climbed the production ladder, landing a gig producing and playing guitar in Cyril Neville’s band.

“New Orleans was a lot of fun,” he says, “but there was not a lot of money there. The best musicians are doing gigs for $50 a night, which actually isn’t that much different than New York. The difference is here there is lots more work. I came here to make money. I was tired of being broke.”

The money in New York City was not in the rock or hippie stuff, however, but in rap. Schiavo started scripting beats for underground emcees to make ends meet. He got by, though perhaps at the price of losing his soul. “I was not interested anymore. I was not having a good time doing the music I was doing. The ideological and spiritual direction of the music was really bothering me. The people I was involved with were bothering me too.”

The breakthrough occurred when asked to work on commercials. His friend pulled him into one spot that needed an acoustic soundtrack. Schiavo played guitar, adding upright bass and violin via his synthesizer. There was one missing ingredient: the mandolin. He didn’t know of any local players, so he picked it up for the first time since his teenage years. “I immediately fell in love with music again.”

Another friend told Schiavo about a Wednesday night open bluegrass jam at the Baggot Inn in the West Village. The first time there, he was blown away, and remained a consistent visitor. The jam continues at the Grisley Pear on MacDougal St every Wednesday evening at nine, though Schiavo doesn’t make it over as often these days. He’s too bush recording with guitarist Rick Snell, whom he met via that weekly jam, as well as dobro player James Kerr, fiddler Rob Hecht, and upright bassist Ian M. Riggs. These men would comprise Schiavo’s five deadly players.

In its short history, the Five Deadly Venoms has made quite a name for itself. The band made it to the finals of the 2009 Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition, and Hecht won the 2009 Rockygrass Fiddle Competition award. Earlier this year, the members released their debut self-titled on their own label, touring nationally to support their efforts. A beautiful gem of an album, the 12 songs showcases all five members, including three on vocals.

The initiated will be drawn into the textures of each song; newcomers will recognize the pieces: the African-influenced blues, the Celtic-inspired folk, the mountain and valley Americana. When Schiavo mentioned that famous bluegrass musicians live in this city, he separated himself and his band from that statement. Given the strength of this band, that won’t last long.