By Dan Barry
4:14 PM EDT, October 17, 2011
w/ Sea Tea Improv
all ages (under 21 must be accompanied by a legal guardian), free, 6 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 23, City Steam Brewery Café, 942 Main St., Hartford, (860) 525-1600, citysteambrewerycafe.com; Friday, Oct. 28, 8 p.m., all ages, Firebox Restaurant, 539 Broad St., Hartford, fireboxrestaurant.com
Hartford instrumental trio String Theorie isn't the city's typical success story. They're skilled musicians, not flashy ones. They're not playing the covers or dance music normally associated with Hartford, nor are they tapping into the cultural zeitgeist by playing indie rock. Instead, they're building upon a small-but-growing genre known as fingerstyle guitar. Fingerstyle merges jazz and classically trained technical abilities with rock's bold, chunky compositional style.
But even among their peers, they're a bit odd. Fingerstyle guitarists typically work as soloists, with musicians like Don Ross, Kaki King, Michael Hedges and Preston Reed considered leaders in the field. String Theorie add a rhythm section to the mix, but it's not a typical rock band's bass and drums. While guitarist Joel Weik keeps the distinctive fingerstyle sound at the forefront, bassist Karl Messerschmidt adds a detailed low end that sometimes synchs up with Weik, and other times dovetails to create complex layered melodies. Percussionist Jordan Critchley is the band's most explicit world music influence, with an unusual kit structured around a djembe.
"It's definitely surprising to us," says Weik in a phone interview when I ask him about his band's unlikely success. "And delightful. But I had no expectations that so many different people would take to it." Their first EP has entered its third repressing. Weik scored an endorsement by Ovation, which is the go-to brand for fingerstyle guitarists. The band has landed high-profile gigs such as an event with the aforementioned Don Ross (he's "been my guitar hero ever since I was a little kid," says Weik). And the band is now in preliminary negotiations with record companies regarding the release of their upcoming full-length.
"Does it feel like you guys have hit a new level?" I asked Weik.
"We feel like we're approaching a new level, yeah. We don't feel like we've hit it yet. We've been talking internally about trying to expand out of Connecticut more. Last week I did a guerrilla gig at a performing arts center in Natick, Mass. — did a few songs and dropped off a business card. We want to organize some kind of tour where we all take a week or two off of work."
Playing out live has allowed the band to develop in ways that they can't when they're in the practice space. "The biggest thing, aside from any personal demons when approaching the stage — anxiety, fear, uncomfortability — is just troubleshooting. Learning to deal with whatever a live show throws at you and take it in stride and engineer a solution."
So does the trio hope to turn their band into a career? "Playing a couple gigs and selling CDs here and there would never replace a steady job," says Weik. "It would require licensing, and ways to leverage the music other than just the song on the CD. But that's a whole territory that we're just learning about and exploring. I remember the first time that someone paid us like 300 bucks to use a 20-second clip of a song in a commercial. It was a wonderful feeling to turn a profit off of something we made, where we didn't have to do anything."
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