The Art Of The Sit In | Allie Kral
Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Al Schnier, Nikki Glaspie , Matt Butler and others.
Allie Kral is one of those musicians with whom you just know you’re going to have a good time – she loves to play, she radiates energy and warmth, and she can really bring it in the heat of a jam.
She’s become ubiquitous on our scene, and since departing Chicago jam-grassers Cornmeal in May, she’s made it a point to spread her wings and embrace the “Artist-at-Large” concept, lending her talents to a number of different ensembles and collaborations over the past few months.
Let’s hear a bit from Allie, who’ll be once again “at large” during next month’s Jam Cruise and has no plans to commit to any one band for the immediate future.
JAMBASE: You left Cornmeal about seven months ago and you’ve turned up in a number of places since. How are you picking your spots these days, and whom you choose to play with?
ALLIE KRAL: I really think this is a chance for me to get out there and try new things. I’ve been spending time again listening to music and people that I’d listened to while I was with Cornmeal but never really had a chance to play with. Now I can spend more time reaching out and being all, I like your style and let’s play a song together. It’s been really fun for me to try new things.
JAMBASE: ‘Trying other styles’ makes me think Cornmeal might have become too confining. Did you ever feel like you were put in sort of a ‘bluegrass box’ or close to it?
AK: No, not too much because we really did play so many different types of music and expand our horizons with Cornmeal. But I really love to do the rock ‘n’ roll thing and I love to do the folk thing, and maybe Cornmeal would do a rock tune but if I’m going out and jumping on a gig like Magic Box, I’m playing a whole show of rock tunes. So that’s how I see it.
JAMBASE: So you’ve been reaching out to these types of bands a lot lately?
AK: Yes. I was Artist at Large at Shoe Fest and for the most part I played a couple of songs with…I forget what the count was at the end but I think I played with about 17 new bands. Sometimes it’ll be a song, depending on who it is, but sometimes it can be the whole set.
JAMBASE: What’s an example of another band you’ve gotten close to and collaborated more with?
AK: The Brother Comatose. They’ve got an awesome fiddle player and I love his style (Philip Brezina) and his stuff. But I also brought the two brothers (Alex and Ben Morrison) together to do a trio format with me, and we’re looking to do a lot more of that as well. Maybe we’ll try to folk people up a bunch more in the new year!
AK: I think it was for that reason – that urge to try new things. I didn’t feel like I was a one-trick pony with Cornmeal or anything like that but I was really wanting to expand a bit more from what I was getting with that band. I still love them and support them fully and I miss them, but I’d been with them a decade, and it was time to move on. Now I really want to try to master this whole sit-in thing, and be in charge of my own schedule and do lots of festivals for the next few years.
JAMBASE: Do you miss being in a regular touring band at all?
AK: I think I will someday, and down the line I might consider joining a group again. But for now I think it would be good for me just to join a group for a month or a tour and try lots of different situations.
JAMBASE: How do you assess how much sitting in you’d do with one band?
AK: It depends on the case. If it’s not a great fit, maybe it’s just a song at a festival. But maybe it’s an entire tour. I think it does work well for me because of the timbre of my instrument. The violin, the fiddle – it can be added on, it’s not a bass or drums or guitar that has to be playing the entire time. I’d love to play with a band that’s never thought of adding a violin sound.
JAMBASE: You’re headed for Jam Cruise in early January. What’s the appeal of that for a musician like you?
AK: It’s a hang out scene. You’re on one boat together, you’re always having dinner together and talking about what you like, what music you’re a fan of and what you want to do, and you have all of these jam rooms and jams together where you’re able to create for the first time. Everyone Orchestra is going to be there, and Matt (Butler) always does a great job bringing people together so I’ll be in that. There are a few bands I know really well that I’ll be a part of, and I also can’t wait to try new things and meet new musicians.
I just did a jazz gig in the Chicagoland area and I was scared about it because I’m kind of new to the whole jazz thing and even trying to play something in B-flat wasn’t my thing. I was like, wow, I might have to bring those chops back up before Jam Cruise, there’s a lot of jazz and funk and fun stuff on there. It’s going to be challenging but it’s a setting where you’re really able to experiment. You can reward yourself by lying out on the pool deck afterward!
JAMBASE: Totally. But I can’t imagine these musical worlds are that foreign to you.
AK: No, well, I guess it’s when people are getting funky – playing lots and lots of funk – it’s new for me because I don’t quite know where to put my instrument and how to find the gaps. With bluegrass…it’s never easy, but it is comfortable. Jazz and funk, these are cats who really know their style and I’m new to it so it’s a little scary. I try not to be too flashy and sometimes I overcompensate for the fact that I might be nervous. I’ve had bad sit-ins and they might be my best stories, you know?
JAMBASE: Well now you have to tell me one. You don’t have to name the band.
AK: OK, OK. So this is still young in my Cornmeal career and I hadn’t been sitting in with too many bands and…oh, I’ll just say it, it was moe. They asked me to sit in with them at Summer Camp and I hadn’t even met them yet. Al Schnier was the first one I met and he told me, ‘The xylophone solo is going to happen and then you’re going to come in. In our case, we’re a jamband so play anywhere from three to 12 minutes, as long as you want, really.’
So I listen to the xylophone solo and the band comes to a halt and then it’s my turn to come out on stage and I’m super nervous and the initial contact happens and it’s nerve wracking but I just kind of fell into the music and I did play somewhere between three to 12 minutes. And then it was like, ‘Allie Kral, everybody!’
The entire crowd of Summer Camp erupted and it was so cool. And I’m in a daze and I’m not realizing that that was them telling me it’s time to leave the stage, and they’re going into the song that of course Al had told me earlier on he wouldn’t ever want me to try on the fly. And oh shit, there’s no faking my way out of this. I just had to play, and I glance at the setlist and it’s this song into another one and then back into the original monster, and I’m like, I don’t know what to do so I’m just going to kind of lay low. They’d intended for me to be out there like three to 12 minutes and I was probably on stage for 45 minutes.
JAMBASE: But that doesn’t sound like a bad sit-in, and obviously they liked you – you’ve jammed with moe. so much in the last few years!
AK: Oh man. Well, yeah, they called me later to play on something for them and I was all like, do they even remember me? But there are bad sit-ins, and if it’s a bad key for me or something in which I haven’t practiced my scales enough…it happens. I try to revert back to playing as simple as possible and hope it works.
JAMBASE: You don’t strike me as a guest musician who’s afraid to be aggressive, though. If we look at sit-ins as a spectrum of waiting around to be told to solo and being all over the band, not necessarily in a good way, you seem like you go after a balance.
AK: Yeah. It depends on how comfortable I am and also if it’s going to be more of a quick thing versus playing a whole show or not. You don’t want to play too much over the band because a violin sound stands out so much and especially if someone is singing, they don’t want to be competing with that. Bluegrass can be pretty showy – there’s actually a lot more room to overplay in bluegrass than there is in rock ‘n’ roll. For me, it’s intuition and I just go at it and if play wrong notes or it’s not what I was trying to do, sometimes the audience doesn’t even realize it.
JAMBASE: Is there any situation – any genre – in which you would flat-out turn down a chance to collaborate?
AK: Man, I don’t know because I was just listening to old school rap, and you know, it’d be really cool to do a show like that some time. It’d be cool to do country shows, of course. I guess if I thought it was really cheesy music, I’d have to say no. But there’s no genre I wouldn’t try, I’m classically trained, and I want to get out there.
JAMBASE: So I’m writing down that Allie Kral would be all about doing crazy, out there jazz fusion and death metal. Here I go.
AK: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah, well death metal would be really cool, especially if I had octave strings. I’m into it. Let’s do it.
JAMBASE: When you’re on Jam Cruise or an Artist at Large at a festival, how much planning goes into who you’re going to play with and what? Seventeen sit-ins don’t all just sort of happen.
AK: It depends, and always if there’s an actual part a band wants me to learn or just to come play with what they’re doing. The New Mastersounds have a song where they’ve told me, OK, we want you to learn this part, and they send it ahead so I know I can do it and I told them I’d learn it for Jam Cruise.
But we’re also going to be doing a picking session with Keller Williams and the Infamous Stringdusters and a few others from Greensky and that’s going to be on the fly: play, and pick, and have a good time. I can react well, and it’s more helpful if it’s one person to look at and guide solos versus, OK, you’re going to solo in this section and do this exact part.
JAMBASE: How will you spend most of your time in 2014? Will you be committing at length to some things?
AK: Other than a booking agent and a publicist, not really. I feel like I love the music side of things but it’s tough for me to do the business side, so I’ve put a team together to help with that. I really just want to play with a lot of new people, try a lot of new things. I’d love to do a bunch of festivals this summer and the Artist at Large thing there, but we’ll see where it takes me. It’s fun right now. I hope it doesn’t get old for the audience and they’re not saying, like, oh god, Allie again.
JAMBASE: Who’s top of your list of bands or musicians you’ve never played with but want to?
AK: The Avett Brothers. I want to play with them, they’re awesome. Music like that, where it’s upbeat and it’s high-energy on stage, I just love that, the personalities and jumping up and down and bouncing around the stage. That’s a band I’d love to play with, for sure.
Allie has a strong feel for what makes a good sit-in, so her appearance in most any context is almost always going to be a welcome one. Here are five that jump out from the last eight months of collaborations.
Allie Kral & Friends, “Friend of the Devil,” 5/24/13: Summer Camp fun, with Allie joined by members of Yonder Mountain String Band and Cornmeal among others.
moe. with Allie Kral, “Plane Crash,” 5/25/13: We’ve pimped this one a few times already on JamBase but it’s worth revisiting – a corker of a jam on a corker of a song.
The Brothers Comatose with Allie Kral, 7/9/13 “Y’all Come”: Strings were promised at the Northwest String Summit. Strings, friends, were delivered.
Old Shoe with Allie Kral, “Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes,” 9/7/13: Allie was the belle of the ball at September’s Shoe Fest and totally crushed this Paul Simon cover with Americana five-piece Old Shoe.
Floodwood with Allie Kral, “Waiting for the Punchline,” 9/8/13: Speaking of Shoe Fest, this Floodwood reworking of the moe. tune was the standout, but the whole stretch with Allie is worth a listen.