Bluegrass Beyond Borders: It takes Backbone to play bluegrass in Austria
Martin Wesely and Marco Birkner, the Austrian duo that refers to themselves as The Nice Corner Backbones, chose their handle for good reason. Nice Corner is the name of the suburb of Hall where the two grew up, Haller Vorortes Schönegg in German.
Having played classical chamber music, scoring music for the theater, and taking part in tours with rock and top 40 bands, they had a passion to play music that they figured would never make them money at home
“Why?” they wondered. They admit they had no idea.
Nevertheless, given the pair’s partnership, it seems it was something they were destined to do. They do have backbones after all.
“Marco and I got to know each other in kindergarten,” Wesely explains. “Back then, we did not know that we had a passion for bluegrass music. We both became professional musicians. Marco was playing in rock and top 40 bands, and I myself studied classical guitar and became involved in chamber music, jazz, and crossover projects. The duo originated when I was asked to create the music for a theater play in Innsbruck in 2014. The director was a huge fan of the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou, so the musical theme was quite clear. We both enjoyed it a lot, and so we kept on playing it.”
Once the pair made the decision to continue exploring their musical possibilities, they began meeting in Wesely’s backyard to rehearse and hone their skills. “Eventually, we played a gig in local club to scope out people’s reaction to this sound,” Wesely continues. “The crowd liked our single mic performance and so we kept on playing live. We enjoy performing in this direct setting which feels so fresh every time.”
On various occasions, Wesely and Birkner will expand their line-up as well. “When we play as a trio, Marco plays guitar, acoustic lap steel, and banjo,” Wesley explains. “I play the guitar and mandolin, and sometimes I use the frailing banjo. Our third man, Frajo, is a multi instrumentalist. He plays accordion — especially on the swing music — the harmonica for bluesy flavored stuff, and plays guitar or mandolin when needed. In the quartet, we have a double bass. Three of us sing lead and harmony vocals, so we create different settings, not only with the instruments, but vocally as well. We dance around our microphone a lot.”
While the Backbones’ primary focus is on bluegrass, they can vary their approach on occasion. They’ve added gypsy jazz, swing music, and even some takes on Beatles songs. “We just think it’s more interesting to have more variety in the program,” Wesley says. “Our sound gets its flavor through different instrumental settings.”
Nevertheless, Wesely said his initial influence stemmed from Doc Watson. “When I was 13 or 14, I started getting into his fiddle tunes,” he says. “I sometimes performed them in the streets with some friends. That was in my youth. When Marco and I started to play, we were totally inspired by Michael Daves and Chris Thile. As a guitarist, I’m an especially big fan of Tony Rice and Bryan Sutton.”
Wesely, who resides in a small Austrian town called Hall in Tirol, located near Innsbruck in the middle of the Alps, says that the Nice Corner Backbones generally limit their performances to their native country, where they’ll perform at summer festivals, as well as clubs, and cafes.
Their live videos can be found on YouTube, and they’re also linked to their website, http://www.backbones.at.
The guys focus mostly on covers, specifically songs such as Nine Pound Hammer, Bury Me Beneath the Willow, If I Should Wander Back Tonight, Man of Constant Sorrow, and Freeborn Man. In addition, they also include such standards in their sets as When Did You Leave Heaven and You Always Hurt the One You Love, as well as fiddle tunes and gypsy jazz songs.
In addition, Wesely indulges in other activities that take him beyond the Backbones as well. “I feel comfortable in various musical fields,” he suggests. “I am always on the lookout for new artistic challenges for the acoustic guitar, while crossing styles with chamber music and band projects. I’ve performed all over Europe, and my artistic work is documented by Austrian, French, German, Polish and Italian broadcast companies. And, for 20 years, I’ve been a member of the international guitar quartet, guitar4mation.”
He notes that he’s released ten projects under his own aegis, including his latest, The Maid in the Mill, a guitar adaptation of a work by composer Franz Shubert recorded with tenor singer Martin Mitterrutzner. He also continues to create music for theater and radio plays in addition to curating a concert series in his hometown.
As far as the Backbones is concerned, Wesley says the reaction from local audiences has been quite enthusiastic. “People always love that sound,” he says when referencing bluegrass. “Actually, it is folk music, but with that special drive.”
Naturally then, he has his own thoughts about the appeal of bluegrass in general.
“I notice all the time that when people get to hear that handmade acoustic music, they really enjoy it,” he muses. “I think bluegrass musicians have fun playing and singing together. and changing instruments, and that’s what the audiences relate to.”
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