Even with their acoustic instruments (banjo, mandolin, guitars and a standup bass) and distinctly mountain sound, local bluegrass act Sanctum Sully feels right at home opening for jam/funk band Kung Fu Dynamite.
"People are a lot more open minded around here," bassist Matt Blue points out. "It's a big melting pot."
"That was an interesting show," vocalist and mandolin player Jay Franck says. "People were flat-footing one minute and fist-pumping the next."
And: "We're friends with the saxophone player," Franck says. "He'd always been wanting us to play a show with them. We have mutual friends, so the crowd was into bluegrass and rock. That seems standard for Asheville."
Both musicians agree that the local bluegrass scene — with offerings like Shindig on the Green and successful acts like Steep Canyon Rangers to its credit — is strong in Asheville. Then again, though Sanctum Sully goes to see bluegrass performed, the band doesn’t share stages with many of the players.
"We're not traditional," Blue explains. "We'll do a Doors tune, then do a Phish tune, then do a Bill Monroe tune. Then jump back into our own stuff."
Franck, Blue, and guitarists Win Webster and Matt Mommsen all write Sanctum Sully originals, and, says Franck, each writer's style reflects his respective background and individual tastes.
Blue is from Kalamazoo, Mich. Mommsen and banjo player Bill Turner are from High Point, N.C. Franck and Webster are from Martinsville, Va.
"Before I got together with these guys, I played bluegrass with my family, and still do," says Franck. "That was a casual thing. Dad always wanted us to play bluegrass. I used to hate it, but grew to like it."
Blue taught himself to play banjo from videos, and later bass after "getting tired of being left out" at jam sessions, though he says that bluegrass wasn't something he was interested in until he was about 17. Webster was in a Phish cover band in high school, Franck was in an indie-rock band and, according to the mandolin player, "Matt Mommsen was always kind of a blues guitar shredder. I think that comes out in his playing in our band, which makes us sound a little different than Tony Rice or whatever."
The band started by chance: "I ran into Matt Mommsen at Jack of the Wood one night," says Franck. "I hadn't seen him in seven years. We got drunk that night and were like, 'We gotta start playing music again.' We all come from different backgrounds but we all gravitated toward bluegrass."
A couple jam sessions a week ("because it was something to do besides watch TV") led to an open mic night ("before we were ready to do that at all"). Blue, who had lost his job in Michigan, saw the Craigslist ad where Sanctum Sully was looking for a bass player. The band's name, by the way, was a suggestion from Franck's girlfriend who found the old-timey reference to corn liquor in a book of Southern colloquialisms.
If at first Sanctum Sully was just a whim, the band is now a polished act. Well, as polished as a group of guys who maintain a certain unpredictable, rough-around-the-edges charm can get. This year they played Martinsville's Rooster Walk Festival and then, a month later, appeared as finalists in the WNC Magazine-sponsored Last Band Standing competition. The four top fan-voted groups played a showcase at the Orange Peel where the winner — selected by a panel of judges, an online poll and audience response — landed the Bele Chere Festival opening slot.
Sanctum Sully didn't win but, according to Franck, "I think we got to do the fun part of the deal."
"We had great response from people who never heard us before," he adds. "It was a lot of fun getting to play up there. The sound was fantastic." Another success: The release of Sanctum Sully's debut, nine-track album, Crooked-Eyed Toad. But even on the eve of the CD-release party for that record, Frank is already thinking ahead. “My plan is to record again this winter and try to learn from what we did last time. We’re still writing new songs and I feel like they keep getting better.”
Most of all, says Blue, the plan is just to have fun.
Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Sanctum Sully
what: CD-release party. Arbor Bueno opens.
where: Mo Daddy’s
when: Friday, August 6 (9 p.m., $5. modaddysbar.com)