On a late Sunday afternoon at Ella's Americana Folk Art Café, local folk-pop ensemble Grecian Urns captivated a room packed with people chowing down on soul food and barbecue, the musicians charming all with their infectious feel-good energy and youthful exuberance.
The music -- sometimes quiet and pastoral and pretty in its simplicity, other times rollicking and carefree and lush with well-textured instrumental arrangements -- brightened up the place with its pure joyousness, the songwriting flavored with the sun-drenched nostalgia of those still young enough to appreciate the freedom of summer and all those precious moments leading up to its end.
The end of summer is particularly bittersweet for the Grecian Urns, since those few precious months are when they're active; most of the members are away at college in different corners of the Southeast the rest of the year.
"We come back in the summers, we play a ton of shows -- this summer's been really great for us -- we get a huge head of steam, then we go our separate ways," guitarist/lead singer Bryce McGuire tells me when I meet with Grecian Urns the week after that memorable Ella's performance. The band includes siblings David and Laurie Beth Norris (he on drums, she on vocals, keys, trombone, flute and percussion), bassist Jared DiMaggio, violin player/backup vocalist Katherine Dunn and the McGuire brothers -- Bryce on lead vocals and acoustic and electric guitars, and Brandon on keys, electric guitar, and occasionally harmonica and drums. Younger sister Shaundra supports Grecian Urns on vox, sax and cello when she's not performing with her sister Kathleen in The Sun Society.
We chat in the comfortable living room of the McGuire family's suburban home, which is located in the same St. Pete neighborhood where the tight-knit group of friends and siblings met and attended Keswick Christian School. A school production of The Music Man brought them together in a creative context, and a shared love of making music led to deeper friendships, jam sessions, spontaneous performances and eventually the birth of a band in 2006. When college came along and they were forced to go their separate ways -- South Florida, Virginia, Tennessee -- they vowed to re-convene when they returned and keep the Grecian Urns alive during the summer months.
Everything changed this year. "We've kind of realized that, exponentially, every summer we've been back, more and more good things have happened for us," Bryce tells me. So they decided to get serious and to "put out an album the best we could, of these songs we've wanted to record for a while, and then play a lot of shows to promote it."
The majority of songs on the Grecian Urns' self-produced LP, Lovedream, were crafted over the past few summers, and the season informs the sunny airiness of their sound -- the heart-hugging melodies carried on lively piano and adorned with bright blasts of brass and subtle sweeps of strings; the toe-tapping rhythms augmented by whistling, hand-clapping and various other percussive textures; the lyrics about friends, family, freedom, Christianity and their Florida home delivered in intertwining multi-voice harmonies, sometimes boy-girl call-and-response style, sometimes rising in choral reverence or spirited shouts.
Lovedream had its official unveiling at a CD release show in June. Shortly after, the band put out two music videos that were originally produced to complement their set at the CD release. "Lovedream" captures the dreamy contented atmosphere of the band's Florida summers, while "Muhammad Ali" -- a love song inspired by the relationship of Bryce and Brandon's parents, Rocky, and "the idea that love is a fight song" -- offers a tongue-in-cheek story about a man who finds his son's laptop open to a Facebook status update that reads "If you think you can beat my dad in a fight, why don't you prove it! Be at the bridge before sundown ..."
"The story it's based on actually happened," Bryce explained. "On Father's Day, Brandon wrote 'You think you can take my dad? Well, why don't you prove it?" or something like that on Facebook, just trying to tease my dad and get him riled up." In the video montage, the fictional dad (played by real-life Pop McGuire) practices his boxing moves in various parts of the house to hilarious effect, and eventually heads out to the bridge to see who'll show up to take him on.
Grecian Urns kept plenty busy before leaving town this time around. "We played 12 shows in the last six weeks. Which is good -- that's what we wanted to do." Things have been going so well, in fact, that for the first time ever, they'll be re-uniting before the summer to play WMNF's John Lennon Tribute in October and a few dates during Christmas break. "Then we'll make a decision about how realistic it is for us to keep doing this."