Formerly Burlington-based duo Avi and Celia have long been darlings of the local Americana scene. And why not? Their breezy take on boy-girl folk is pleasantly charming and almost nauseatingly cute — but in a good way. However, the pair, now living in Boston, has done something perhaps unfathomable to longtime fans. Avi and Celia have gone electric with a new outfit dubbed Hey Mama. Obviously, the change isn’t as controversial as say, Bob Dylan plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Still, it’s a surprising move. But based on the strength of the group’s blues-rock-fueled, self-titled debut, it’s a good one.
From the initial rambling acoustic-guitar lick that opens the disc on “At the End of the Day,” most Avi and Celia fans might not notice anything terribly different from their earlier efforts. But that notion is laid to rest by the first chorus, as Celia Woodsmith’s bluesy howl is joined forcefully by Avi Salloway’s ragged slide guitar and — what’s this? — a crack rhythm section consisting of bassist Ben Kogan and drummer Jared Seabrook. And no, it’s not an anomaly.
“Bull Woman Blues” is a roadhouse scorcher. Salloway proves a vicious axe man, his intensity matched only by Woodsmith’s bruising vocals. Perhaps his ace chops were previously mellowed by his mostly acoustic musings. But dude can rip.
In reality, we probably should have seen this coming. It’s not as though Avi and Celia were ever strictly folk traditionalists. Their music has always borne shades of blues, country and rock. But Hey Mama’s electrified aesthetic seems to have granted the duo freedom to explore sonic terrain beyond their previous output.
Take “Mountain Bones,” for example. A rippling phalanx of strings weaves gently around swooning vocal harmonies. It’s sort of like indie-folk for the blues-rock set. Those same strings — again arranged by Salloway — reappear on the heartsick ballad “Sweet Low Song,” soothing Woodsmith’s exquisitely anguished, soulful wail.
On “Red Signs, White Fences” Salloway pens some delicious horn lines, expertly delivered by saxophonist Alec Spiegelman.
“Whiskey Bayou” is a brooding, appropriately murky slow burn and takes full advantage of Salloway’s reverb-drenched guitar. “I Give This to You” closes the affair in celebratory blues-rock splendor.
So, yes, Avi and Celia have plugged in. But the change is not as abrupt as it might seem. New band or not, the two retain the wily charms that have long endeared them to local fans while revealing some previously overlooked nuances that might do the same to new audiences.
Hey Mama release their debut disc at Nectar’s this Saturday, December 5.