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The Underhill Family Orchestra Turns Audience Into Family

Courtesy the artists

Tell Me That You Love Me is the latest release from Alabama’s The Underhill Family Orchestra.

According to the group’s Stephen Laney, the titular phrase informed the writing of the album.

“That phrase means so many different things to different people,” he says. “We [all] want to be loved and to love but we don’t want to change ourselves too much.”

Mandolinist and guitarist Ben Cook says that that sense of love extends to the unit’s live shows. “We want the audience to be drawn in, maybe even forget that they’re seeing a band play,” he offers. “We want them to enjoy being with people they’re close to and to convey that through the performance and the music.”

The thematic connections are evident throughout the record even if it doesn’t present as a concept album in the traditional sense. Laney, a greater fan of albums than singles, notes that the presentation was informed by his own listening experiences.

“You listen to old Neil Young records, you listen to Leon Russell or Elton John, Prince, Bowie, they had a way of making it so that songs communicated with each other,” he says, pointing to songs from Tell Me That You Love Me.

A string part in the opening “Oak Holler” echoes a guitar riff that appears in the later piece, “Silverhill Church Girl.”

“It felt like such a classic, familiar idea,” he says. “It gives it a theatrical sense. There are a lot of different sounds from a lot of different places but it all has a cohesion.”

One might also detect hints of Southern musical traditions, including gospel music.

“Growing up there, church music is all around,” says vocalist Joelle Rosen. “If you’re involved with it or you’re not, it’s probably somewhere in your history. My first time singing was in church choir, it’s just there.”

Cook adds, “Passing around stories in song has been around forever, it’s going to come out. The ideas are not religious or faith-based. They’re core concepts of loving each other, bringing people together.”

The group’s shows are notable for the intention of breaking down the barrier between audience and performer. “One thing we do is paint our faces and the idea is that, when we come back to a place, we can paint someone else’s face and draw them into the family,” says Cook. “The idea of bringing people in and making them a part of it all is important. We want to show them that we’re having a great time and that it’s a very inclusive endeavor.”

“We want people to say, ‘That’s our family.’ The show doesn’t end with the music. It ends with us staying at your house,” adds Laney.

Rosen notes, “Someone came up to me recently and said, ‘That was refreshing. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen someone put on a show.’”

The Underhill Family Orchestra returns to Kirby’s Beer Store for a performance on April 23.

“We’ve played there before,” Laney recalls. “We’re looking forward to being on that stage and having people right in our faces. It’s fun to play because you feel like the audience is on stage with you.”

Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.