Jane Kramer doesn’t mince words when it comes to her admiration of Free Planet Radio and Billy Cardine. In advance of their Saturday, July 15, show at The Altamont Theatre, the Asheville singer-songwriter refers to the world-music trio and Acoustic Syndicate dobro player as the best musicians in town and says she wants them to be her band “whenever [she] can afford to pay them what they’re worth.”
The symbiotic partnership dates to 2015, when engineer/producer Adam Johnson of Asheville’s Sound Lab Studios recruited Eliot Wadopian (bass), River Guerguerian (percussion) and Chris Rosser (guitar) — all of Free Planet Radio — to play on Kramer’s album Carnival of Hopes. During the intensive week of recording together live as a group, they formed a special musical bond while elevating Kramer’s creations beyond what she thought was possible.
“I’ll write my songs with a pretty traditional folk instrumentation or arrangement in mind,” Kramer says. “When I bring them to these fellas, I feel like [the songs] grow and change.”
Guerguerian compares the pocket that he, Wadopian and Rosser have to a silver platter, on which a singer may “load on top and let their magic happen.” As the percussionist describes it, he and Wadopian hold a groove while Rosser operates in a different kind of pocket on rhythm guitar. “And then Billy is kind of like the ooze that fills in all the space between the groove and the rhythm guitar and the vocalist,” he says. “Sometimes Billy will embellish what Jane’s doing — like do some little filler notes between her passages — or sometimes he’ll really lock into what the three of us are doing. And sometimes, in one song, he might do both.”
Guerguerian estimates he and his bandmates have worked with 75 different songwriters over the past 15 years, among them Lizz Wright, Virginia Shank, David LaMotte and Billy Jonas. In collaborating with Kramer in the studio, he says “her voice and her whole vibe really stood out.” He was further impressed by her songwriting, and after the trio agreed to back her for the Carnival of Hopes release show in early 2016 at The Grey Eagle, he got to see more of her laudable qualities.
“She really knows how to connect with the audience live,” Guerguerian says. “And she’s sincere and she’s not pretentious. … She’s really humble.”
The Altamont concert will be the fourth time Kramer has performed with Free Planet Radio, and, in each instance, she brings new songs to the group. (Her most recent additions were inspired by a monthlong trip to Scotland in May. While there, she traveled around the country, learned some of its traditional songs and wrote a few of her own, inspired by the surroundings.) Prep work involves sending the players her latest MP3s and charting the songs with their assistance, during which the self-taught musician says her more learned peers are “never condescending.”
Once the challenge of coordinating everyone’s schedules is conquered — “You should see the chain of emails,” Kramer says — the collaborators meet for, at most, two rehearsals before the performance. She and Guerguerian agree that more practice would be ideal, but with the trio’s years of experience together and their rapport with Cardine, built over the better part of the past decade, the instrumentalists are able to quickly jell and work up the new material.
Kramer and the band have talked about some international touring together in the vein of Free Planet Radio’s Asian circuits. They’ve been invited to play summer 2018’s Wayne Henderson Bluegrass Festival in Galax, Va., and will reunite later this year to record Kramer’s third solo album. She plans to release it sometime next year and is also at work on a collection of lullabies.
The idea for the set of originals and new arrangements of traditional pieces started during the mastering phase of Carnival of Hopes when Johnson noticed that Kramer’s voice had the power to calm his fussing infant and put the child to sleep. He then tested her music on other babies and saw similar results. Kramer says it might be a while before the project for young listeners is completed but promises that those soothing tunes will eventually be delivered.
WHO: Jane Kramer with Free Planet Radio and Billy Cardine
WHERE: The Altamont Theatre, 18 Church St., thealtamont.com
WHEN: Saturday, July 15, at 8 p.m. $12 advance/$15 day of show/$20 VIP