Following its name change, Parsonsfield, New England's most exciting folk band, is letting its music speak for itself.
It's just shy of two o’clock on a hot, cloudless, mid-July afternoon when Poor Old Shine plays their final show.
The sold out crowd of thousands at the Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts is still shuffling in, looking like they have hiked to the concert. Older men wear straw hats and full, gray beards like Hampshire College professors on sabbatical, while younger men wear tank tops and the smell of pot, looking like they will grow up to be the older men. Flowing, Bohemian sundresses sway with music that is new and unfamiliar. Rolling green mountains hang in the background. A silo sits just beyond the Main Stage. Amidst all this, Poor Old Shine stands central, looking out at their biggest audience to date.
On stage, de facto frontman Chris Freeman seems genuinely blown away: one year ago, Poor Old Shine was on a quiet, tucked away side stage, far away from the sea of action before them now.
During the previous act, a forgettable blues duo whose set ran into one 12-bar loop, the audience applied sunscreen, laid out blankets, and tactically ran their eyes over the schedule of the next two days. Some might have passed over their native son's biography in the program when planning the hours ahead of them, but now, they stand at attention as Poor Old Shine launches into "Weeds or Wildflowers" and "Sweet Virginia Lee"—their first two songs, which are so bullishly contagious that, even on a first listen, you feel like you've heard them countless times before.
It is as high-energy a set as can be found in the two days at Greenfield, overshadowing performers of bigger names and more repute: Freeman jumps with banjo in hand, throwing appendages freely, as if the excitement of playing live is too much to keep him on the ground; next to him, guitar player Max Shakun gives a bluegrass version of head banging, and after the set, his mother stops by an interview to say, "How good were Max's kicks today?" After the set, drummer Eric Hischmann is told by fans that he makes "the best faces" when playing, which is true: Hischmann's look falls somewhere between the cool of Levon Helm and the impact of Travis Barker, but with a bicycle wheel attached to the top of his bass drum, acting as the centerpiece of a unique, minimalist set.
Poor Old Shine is the youngest band of the 30-plus scheduled, and the bold energy of their youth plays to the crowd. This band excites and moves them, it seduces them, but ultimately, it is the precision and polish of musicianship well beyond their years that pulls the audience fully in--dancing, clapping, and singing along to choruses that were totally foreign to them after the first verse, but wholly familiar by song’s ends.
For 45 minutes, they give a mix of infectious Appalachian anthems and rustic, handcrafted ballads. It is a pop-ish bluegrass fury of well-worn guitars, danceable drums, and traded vocals balanced evenly with the haunting sounds of three-part harmonies and Freeman running a bow across a handsaw.
But just as soon as it begins, the 45 minutes are up, and Poor Old Shine, at least in name, is dead.
Two years and twelve e-mails have killed "Poor Old Shine," a name that seems perfectly representative of who they are, how they sound, and what they believe in. The three punchy words—Poor Old.Shine—stick in a listener's ear and make a recommendation easy to remember when back at home in front of a keyboard. But it is gone today, and the band must transition to something new and different, finding themselves in momentary flux.
Five hours and 300 yards away, a band that looks and sounds like Poor Old Shine, that has the same five-man roster as Poor Old Shine, plays their first show under a new name that, frankly, takes some getting used to.
"Thanks for coming to the first ever Parsonsfield show," Freeman says after a public sound check.
Parsonsfield. It sounds clunky and unnatural passing from his lips.
"We're new at this, so give us a break," he jokes, and the crowd laughs knowingly, ready for the same polish found earlier on the Main Stage.
Save the on-stage performance, this actually does look like a first gig: the stage—“the Poet's Seat"—is only slightly raised and sits below a tent suited for a high-school graduation party. The wooden floor is temporary, will be folded up and shipped away by tomorrow evening, but for now is peppered with maybe 150 people at its busiest moment. A few feet from the stage, three shaggy-haired college-aged males in lacrosse shorts shout out requests no one else seems to know; they have an ease of interaction with the band that suggest familiarity—college buddies, one assumes. Behind them, Max's father and brothers sing along to their favorites, songs that have probably been crafted and pumped out of an adjacent bedroom over the last few years.
It is humble and endearing, but too seasoned and electric to really be a first. It feels to big to be kept under this tent.
Poor Old Shine, by any other name, would still play as sweet.
* * *
Today, mandolin player Antonio Alcorn's beard hangs over a foot off his chin: it is shocking and pronounced, even from a distance of several hundred yards: it sits under a mop of hair and a captain's hat; it covers up the "V" on his ever-present white t-shirts, most of which have an with an anchor on the left sleeve, the same anchor on the cover of the Poor Old Shine EP.
Under the July heat at Green River, the beard looks oppressive, but he does not seem to notice, nor care.
The history of Poor Old Shine is told in that beard: Antonio says he has not shaven since they got serious as a band roughly two years ago. Prior to that, before he was a member of Poor Old Shine and later Parsonsfield, Antonio was clean-shaven—or, at least, more cleanly than he is now.
Antonio Alcorn of Parsonsfield
In 2011, the fresh-faced Alcorn met Freeman at a folk music club at the University of Connecticut; Freeman was an English major and Alcorn studied computer science—music, at that point, was a hobby. But "through a series of misunderstandings, [the club] was mistaken for a band and given an offer to play a show at Toad’s Place," as an opening act for a friend. With little time, Freeman and Alcorn pulled a line from an oft-covered folk staple, the Texas prison work song, "Ain't No More Cane"—Captain, don't you do me like you done poor old Shine/Well ya drove that bully 'til he went stone blind—and grabbed their moniker.
Unknowingly, the two stumbled upon a new band and the career the group would drop out of college to pursue.
After the debut show, the pair gigged on a small scale for a year before making a concerted effort to fill out the ensemble: first, with current bassist Harrison "Whale" Goodale (who was one of only two bass majors at UConn and the second of the two that auditioned) and then with Freeman's friend Shakun, the youngest member of the band at 22, who joined to play pump organ, guitar, and share vocals.
And Antonio's beard grew a little longer.
Standing on more stable ground, the group played live whenever possible; at Green River, Freeman estimates over 300 times in the last two years. They wrote songs inspired by traditional bluegrass, Pete Seeger, the Band, and the Avett Brothers (the Avetts are used most often when identifying Poor Old Shine's contemporary comparison). In 2012, the mix of thoughtful songwriting and on-stage teeth sharpening was captured on the Live at Infinity Music Hall LP, then, in 2013, on the band's November studio debut, Poor Old Shine. The EP was recorded at the Great North Sound Society studio in rural Parsonsfield, Maine, a town with a population of less than 2,000, no internet connection, no cell phone service, and no grocery store with 40 minutes. It is a fiery, intoxicating debut, marked by personal and rustic underpinnings, most notably the creaking screen door and the sound of crickets on "The Ghost Next Door".
At Great North, Hischmann was brought in as a studio drummer, which led to his invitation to play a few shows, then to a full time position, which now feels serendipitous, as Hischmann's addition matches the charm of the band—their "grass roots ethos".
Older, classically trained drummers are often intrigued by Hischmann's style of play, looking at what he does and admitting that they’ve never thought about the drums that way, but Hischmann says, “It’s really not that hard; you just find different shit to hit the drums with."
Live and on recordings, Hischmann often only uses one drumstick, preferring to use a brush, maraca, or tambourine in the other hand. The bike wheel attached to his bass drum is used for occasional sounds, even if it "mostly just looks cool.” The same ingenuity is true elsewhere in the band, where Freeman bows a saw, Goodale bows the xylophones, and Alcorn uses a pocket fan to create a distant, whimsical sound effect on his mandolin. At one practice session, Goodale brings in a tom drum with a rope coming out of the top, which he plans to hang from somewhere. With a gardening glove, he will run his hand down the string to create enough friction to replicate the sound of a lion's roar.
In Parsonsfield, the band became whole, naturally fitting into a five-man unit.
And, in Parsonsfield, Alcorn's still-growing beard fit the rural landscape—the norm, not the exception.
The EP was released in November of 2013, the culmination of a whirlwind 18 months, but over this time and beyond, the band was met with the occasional e-mail concerning their name: unbeknownst to the group, "Poor Old Shine" can be an obscure reference to an antiquated, derogatory, even racist term for someone lesser, a "poor old shoeshine boy". At first, this was a blip, but grew into a larger distraction—an e-mail once every few months, on stage at night hoping that no one would bring it up after the show.
"You never want your name to offend anyone," says Shakun. "You really want your name to mean nothing, or be a positive. You just want people to hear the music."
However obscure (no search results turn up on Google regarding the matter, and the band found nothing even after contacting several experts on race), the band, not the label, decided to make a change. A sincere change, because this is a sincere band: Freeman is thoughtful and analytical in every response; Shakun is funny, quirky, generous; Alcorn is engaging, well-conceived, easy to talk to; Goodale is quiet and kind, mild-mannered and sharp; Hischmann is friendly and familiar, funny in any moment, and quick to ingratiate himself to locals. According to Alcorn, he finds a breakfast spot in any town they spend any significant time in. It is not long before locals know Eric by name.
Offending anyone was too many, and even occasional e-mails were too frequent, so after a host of conversation, they decided to become Parsonsfield, in honor of the place "where [they] really became the band [they] are today."
At Green River, their early afternoon set on the Main Stage was be their last as "Poor Old Shine," and their evening set at the Poet's Seat would be their first as "Parsonsfield". Truth be told, however, the official switch is made with two songs left on the Main Stage, when Antonio pulled the "Poor Old Shine" sign from the marque to reveal "Parsonsfield" lying beneath. Between sets, Freeman laughs and calls it “a little gimmicky.”
I left friends confused when working on this story, telling them I was writing about a band: "Poor Old Shine, but they’re changing their name to Parsonsfield.” Friends asked why, and almost universally, told me they didn't like the new name.
They liked Poor Old Shine better.
I don't know what stake to put in this, or what stake anyone should put in this, band included: no one can really quantify the importance of a name for an up and comer, so questions persist as to whether this is a big deal or a risk or no such thing. Even if there is anxiety about losing fans in the shuffle, no one in the band lets on—“It was either do it now or do it six months from now," says Shakun matter-of-factly.
A longtime newspaper columnist and ravenous music fan turned me on to Poor Old Shine in the first place. He called their show at a church-turned-music-hall in Palmer "one of the three best shows" he's seen in the ‘00's, but he doesn't like the change, regardless of what motivates it. Out loud, he wonders if the change is such a good idea, and I tend to agree. "Parsonsfield" is another band named after another town with no significance to their audience—it doesn't cut the air like "Poor Old Shine".
In fact, it is only because of their name that I remembered the recommendation several days after it was made.
However, the name, and anyone’s opinion on the name, is of no matter to the group, who continues on the same trajectory they were previously.
The first official Parsonsfield release, The After Party LP, was released on August 19th. The cover features a pencil drawing of Antonio shirtless and swinging an axe at a birthday cake. In the drawing, his beard is thick and pronounced, just as it is in real life. He did not shave for July 14th when the official change happened. The beard still hangs a foot off his face, and is still unbroken growth marking the time that they have been serious as a band: from UConn Folk Club to UConn dropout to a glowing New York Times EP review to the present, where Parsonsfield stands on the precipice of legitimate success.
* * *
"This is what feels like work," Eric says as he sets up his drums for the second time today. "But once you're playing, that's just fun."
It's a Sunday afternoon, a week removed from Green River. The band is pulling equipment out of their cars and into Chris and Max's house where Max's bedroom doubles as the band's practice space.
That morning, Parsonsfield played their third show under their new name at the Coventry Farmer's Market. Goodale is from Coventry; Shakun, Alcorn, and Freeman are all from surrounding towns, and the band's headquarters in Storrs, CT is less than 10 minutes away, so the Farmer's Market is a homecoming of sorts. Among the farm stands and food trucks are parents, Antonio's dog, and a former high school teacher who did not know of Chris's talent.
This is a fun morning, but part of growing a fan base, just like their second show as Parsonfield at "Tech, Drugs, and Rock'n'Roll," a Boston University networking event for technology-professionals. Harssion says that the band takes certain shows, like BU, to be able to do those fun things, like going out west last fall and barely breaking even.
It is the balance of business and art that dictates such actions. Parsonsfield is their job now, and there's a lot riding on it: Chris and Harrison graduated from UConn on extended timelines, while Antonio and Max dropped out.
When asked about Eric, neither Antonio nor Harrsion know where, or if, he went to college. "Everything he knows he learned by doing," Antonio says. "And that's the best way."
The group puts equipment together leisurely while waiting for Jake Klar, a friend and singer-songwriter. The band is taking a break from their own music for the afternoon to help Jake with the arrangements on his upcoming six-song LP, where Parsonsfield will be the studio band.
They will be back up in Maine, at Great North Sounds Society, working with the same producer in the place where they became the band they are today.
Eventually, Jake arrives, takes out his guitar, and plays a driving acoustic heartbreaker, "Hotel Town," with Parsonsfield around him—Antonio sitting on Max's bed, Max next to him on pump organ, Chris in a rocking chair with a notebook, Harrsion on his case, and Eric behind the drum set. Max suggests moving the key up a step for Jake's voice to cut more, and backing vocals appear out of thin air, as if the song had always been calling for the ohh's and ahh's. Chris sits tapping his pen until, eventually, he is too excited and jumps from the rocking chair towards Eric, using his pen to communicate a beat, which Eric mimics
To an untrained observer, the beat sounds fitting, natural. Fine. Good, even.
But Chris isn't satisfied, and after a few seconds of focus, tells Erick to skip an eighth note before hitting the snare: the outcome is a groove totally unexpected from a song that was a solo rock standard in the minutes prior.
The new beat is transformative, turning a good song into something totally different: put in hyper-skilled hands and musicians’ minds, it is given a life, depth, and a renewed meaning that wasn’t previously present.
In the center, Chris looks like a great quarterback under center seeing a game of chess like its checkers. Eric speaks the same language, and the two communicate almost without words. Max, Antonio, and Harrison jump in liberally, democratically, and leave their own fingerprints on the tracks. Jake stands often quiet, always agreeing, but with an occasional tweak—that riff on electric guitar, not mandolin. He is talented in his own right, but his talent seems to be in words: everything else that is happening swirls around him with little protest. He can’t argue with the results: his songs are a naturally pretty girl that becomes gorgeous once given the proper makeup and the right haircut.
"That'll work," Chris says half-satisfied, and moves on to the second song.
Fifteen minutes later, I check the time: it's been barely a half an hour, and twice, good songs have gone through a creative assembly line, coming out great on the other side.
There are four more left to go over, but I pack my things, say a quick goodbye, and slip out the back door.
Chris follows, and asks if I have enough.
I do, more than enough.
My angle about a band in transition, maybe an identity crisis, is shallow.
It's a non-story.
Call these guys whatever you want: this was always going to work. They've got the chops.
And all of a sudden, the calm about throwing out two years as Poor Old Shine makes sense.