What is the sum of The Decemberists minus a singer, plus two kindred spirits.
That equation equals Black Prairie, fertile musical ground that yields a compelling Americana hybrid of acoustic–driven music blending bluegrass, folk, jazz, Appalachian and chamber music, with just a pinch of Southwestern.
This description may confuse rather than clarify, because the music on Black Prairie's 13–song debut CD, "Feast Of The Autumn Moon," defies description as good art should.
Produced by Tucker Martine (Death Cab For Cutie, The Decemberists), the album was released in April via Sugar Hill Records, currently home to the likes of Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Marty Stuart, Nickel Creek and Robert Earl Keen.
The album has gotten support and charted on both college radio and bluegrass–friendly National Public Radio.
Since its release, Black Prairie has been doing mini–tours with 10–12 dates at a time. Two gigs and one tank of gas are booked for this week.
On Oct. 21, they will be part of a 21-and-over triple bill at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, in Chicago at 9 p.m. On Oct. 22 at 8 p.m., expect a much more intimate homecoming concert of sorts for BP member Chris Funk at Front Porch Music, 505 E. Lincolnway, in Valparaiso.
Funk is a native of Valparaiso who split the local music scene some years back to follow his muse, only to become famous and successful along the way as one fourth of The Decemberists.
Once a quirky fixture of the underground arts community, The Decemberists signed in 2006 with Capitol Records and rose from beloved cult favorites to major players of the modern rock scene.
Between albums and tours with that band, Funk and fellow Decemberists Jenny Conlee–Drizos and Nate Query formed Black Prairie as "a living room project" to keep their creative juices flowing, to keep fresh, and to keep active, after performing the same material night after night for months on end while touring.
"The Decemberists make a record every two or three years, so this gives us something to do in between when we're not touring," he explained.
That group's frontman/singer/songwriter, Colin Meloy, has likewise released a couple of solo recordings and most recently has spent some of his downtime authoring and illustrating a children's book with his wife.
"Colin writes The Decemberists stuff, so Black Prairie gives the rest of us the opportunity to stretch out a little as writers and do some different kind of stuff," Funk said.
Black Prairie formed in 2007 when Funk (dobro/Weissenborn/bazouki/vocals), Conlee–Drizos (accordion/vocals) and Query (bass/cello/vocals), began collaborating with like–minded musical journeymen Jon Neufeld (guitar/vocals) and Annalisa Tornfelt (lead vocals/fiddle), from their collective home base of Portland, Ore.
"I met Jon and Annalisa through the acoustic community in Portland and brought them to meet Nate and Jenny," Funk said. "Annalisa worked with a lot of different people and Jon has a bluegrass band called 'Jack Straw' that's pretty well known."
The first name thought of for the band was, A Slow Prairie Death, but when Funk commented they would never get booked at festivals with a name like that, they settled on Black Prairie.
Bluegrass wunderkind Sarah Jarosz, one of the rising stars of the Sugar Hill stable and a huge fan of The Decemberists, was the connection between Funk's new project and the label.
Tornfelt was already well–known to folks at Sugar Hill and they, like everyone else connected to Black Prairie, were intrigued by the open–ended possibilities such a musical collective could create.
"Jenny has a classical music degree and Nate has played a lot of jazz and there's certainly an element of improv in this string band music we're doing with this group," Funk said. "It's bluegrass, but not in a traditional sense. If you came to bluegrass music through say, John Hartford, rather than Bill Monroe, you might like it more."
Continuing his dissection of Black Prairie's sound, Funk said there are explorations into classical music, Eastern European gypsy music and the accordion adds an element of French musette music.
"I guess it's really not something you can slap a label on," Funk said. "We're really not sure yet who our audience is for this band."
While Black Prairie is fun, The Decemberists are still very much the priority for Funk, Conlee–Drizos and Query. "We (The Decemberists) just finished up recording a new album that will be coming out in January and we'll be touring behind that soon."
Funk has nothing but fond memories of the region and some wonderful people here who nurtured his love of music and inspired him to perform. Attending and graduating from Valparaiso High School was an important factor in Funk's musical life.
"My parents were the head of the Jazz Band Parents Association when I was in school, so I was really involved in the band program. I believe Dan Pritchett's excellent music program at Valparaiso is one of the best public school programs in the country. I might not have liked all the music we were doing, but as I look back now, I see how much I really learned about music there. I got the tools I'm still using today with The Decemberists and Black Prairie," he said.
"A teacher there named Alice Gamble, got me involved in some pit orchestras at the school and at the Opera House in Valpo. She was also a great influence," he added.
"And so were a lot of the people I worked with at Front Porch Music later on," he said. "I was like a big sponge just soaking it all up. Being exposed to amazingly talented people like Jerry Short, Ron Buffington, and Ron Barany opened my eyes and ears to blues, bluegrass and folk. Their own music blew my mind, but then they also turned me on to some of their influences like Bill Monroe, John Hartford and John Prine. I grew up listening to groups like The Smiths, so I would never have become the musician I am were it not for all those great Northwest Indiana artists at Front Porch and some of the other area venues."
Funk is excited to be coming back to share his new music at his old haunt and hopes to see a lot of familiar faces from his days at Front Porch in the audience.
Since the release of "Feast Of The Hunter's Moon," Black Prairie has written considerable more material, with much of it featuring vocals.
We'll be playing some of the new songs and much of the album at (this week's) gigs," said Funk. The group will also slip in some cover songs from artists they like and have been influenced by, but you won't be hearing any Decemberists' material.
Next up for Black Prairie – hopefully before being temporarily side–lined by The Decemberists returning to active duty – is a series of EP recordings through Sugar Hill teaming the BP crew with a series of different indie music singers. Already said to be on board for such an EP is Funk's friend Ben Bridwell from the Seattle rock group Band Of Horses.
"Since 'The Times' is in the Chicago area and everybody reads your articles, print that Jeff Tweedy (of the Chicago band Wilco) is high on our 'list' of singers for this," mused Funk. "It'd be great to work with him."