Alabama string band Act of Congress shares stage with Symphony NH

By CHRIS BIERI
Special to the Union Leader
December 08. 2017 3:10PM
If you go...
WHAT: Symphony NH Holiday Ops featuring Act of Congress

WHEN & WHERE: 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Keefe Center for the Arts, 117 Elm St., Nashua; 3 p.m. Sunday at Concord City Auditorium, 2 Prince St., Concord

TICKETS: $18-$49, with discounts for seniors and students

INFO: www.symphonynh.org

Act of Congress has taken a circuitous route to the musical realm it now inhabits. The Alabama string band started off as acolytes of the ambitious, progressive bluegrass played by a band like Nickel Creek.

But in the past 10 years, the group has started performing with symphonies and has produced a pair of Christmas albums.

“I want to be the acoustic version of Trans-Siberian Orchestra,” guitarist Chris Griffin said.

The group brings that diversity of sound to a pair of holiday pops performances this weekend with Symphony NH, which will be helmed by guest conductor Joseph R. Olefirowicz.

After meeting in college, Griffin formed Act of Congress with Adam Wright, who was a piano player at the time.

“Nickel Creek, in the beginning they were really an inspiration for us,” he said. “We all come from diverse backgrounds, but that band had the melting-pot effect and the musicianship and the harmony. None of us grew up in the bluegrass world. We’re a little bit of an outcast from that perspective.”

The band’s name, which Griffin said he would’ve changed had he known the band would endure for nearly a decade, is a reference to their sparse practice schedule.

“It’s going to take an act of Congress to get us together,” he joked.

Once it became established as an acoustic string band, the group started to bring other influences into the fold.

Act of Congress’ interest in collaborating with symphonies started on a local level in Alabama after a chance discussion with the director of the state symphony.

“I didn’t know very much about symphonies, especially the business end,” Griffin said. “Symphonies are in an interesting place. They’re trying to find things that appeal to a new generation of people that aren’t strictly fans of classical music. Our instrumentation ... we’re really into high musicianships. It really blends well with the orchestra.”

Griffin admitted feeling some nerves when the group started playing with larger orchestral groups.

“I freak out all the time. We start in October for the preparation for this,” he said. “We write several of these songs a year. You never think you’ll have to put them together into one show. There’s a lot of practice and a lot of variables. When you realize the audience isn’t just hearing you, they’re hearing 70 of you, it gets to be one cool wall of sound.”

The band has earned its chops, in part by being relentless live players. In 2012, the group auditioned to play with American Music Abroad, the State Department program that sends musicians to other countries as cultural ambassadors.

Symphony NH Executive Director Marc Thayer was working with American Voices at the time, the State Department’s contractor for organizing and booking the tours.

“Out of 300 bands that auditioned, they were one of 10 bands chosen to tour that year and in subsequent years,” Thayer said in an email.

Act of Congress played in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries and traveled with Thayer to Liberia right after the Ebola crisis.

Along the way, Act of Congress has been able to dive into another passion — holiday music. The band released an EP titled “Christmas Vol. 1” in 2011 and followed it up with “The Christmas Collection” in 2016, and annually Act of Congress performs a battery of Christmas performances.

“I see our Christmas show as something that’s very unique and different,” Griffin said.

That combination of talent and range made Act of Congress a great fit for the Symphony NH holidays shows, according to Thayer.

“I knew that their music would be a good fit with our holiday celebrations, and the audiences here in New Hampshire love bluegrass, country, folk music, patriotic music and traditional holiday songs that we’ve known since childhood,” Thayer said. “The band’s arrangements for orchestra are very high quality and fun for the symphony musicians to play. And the band members are each such fine instrumentalists and singers I knew that this would be a fun change for our regular audience members as well as new people, families, everyone that loves the holidays.”


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