Over the past two years, what started as a living-room jam session, involving a husband and wife and their close friend, has spun out into one of the biggest bands in the state.
Big, certainly, in the sense of having a lot of members. As a septet, New Haven's Goodnight Blue Moon — Erik and Nancy Matlack-Elligers, the guitar and cello-playing husband and wife, their mandolin-wielding friend Matt Crowley, Erik's brother, trumpeter Sean Elligers, upright bassist Carl Testa, drummer Nick D'Errico and violinist Vicki Wepler — have committed to playing together in an era heavily populated by more cost-efficient duos.
In terms of critical success, they've also done well, taking home the Best Folk/Traditional trophy at the reader-voted 2013 Connecticut Music Awards, on the basis of a single release, 2012's "How Long," and a handful of successful shows. A performance at a mutual friend's party led NPR's John Dankosky to invite them onto "Where We Live," his flagship morning talk show. The band currently has a busy schedule of bookings around the state, with plans to hit the festival circuit this summer. Next week, the septet hosts a release party for their new six-song EP, "A Girl I Never Met," at Cafe Nine in New Haven on Friday, Jan. 17, with Oh, Cassius! and Milksop:Unsung, lending support.
"We all come from very different backgrounds," Matlack-Elligers said by phone. "I come from the punk/emo scene, Erik is a jazz player and also played in Pencilgrass, Crowley has a big bluegrass background, Carl is an experimental jazz/electronic musician, Vicki is classically trained, and so on."
Goodnight Blue Moon's acoustic sound was born out of those living-room jams, when the Elligers and Crowley needed to keep the noise down, dammit. "Erik picked up an acoustic guitar," Nancy said. "I was playing cello, and Crowley plays the mandolin. It made sense to play acoustic because it's easy to be quiet and not bother anyone." As they started writing songs together, there was no point in electrifying. "Ultimately [the sound came from] what was in our hands," she said.
On "A Girl I Never Met," that acoustic sound is big but not lumbering, lush without overwhelming the senses or wandering into schmaltz-land. There's a deftness to the arrangements; instruments and voices drift in and out (Erik Elligers sings lead on all six tracks and wrote all the lyrics, except for "Hangman," written by Crowley"), like members of a street orchestra, maneuvering through the introduction of "Hollow," for example, which begins with Matlack-Elligers' cello and Sean Elligers' trumpet weaving gentle lines over Erik's acoustic guitar. Crowley's mandolin arrives to add bite, Wepler's violin, gravity. Vocals on "Captain's Church," a minor-key shouter, are gang-tackled, while D'Errico beats his toms to wake the dead.
Elsewhere — as on "Baby," the first of this batch of songs to be written — the rollicking fun they're having yields to Erik's tender, intimate asides. There are songs about the sea, sure, but they aren't corny. "I'll always remember the last words I said to her," Erik sings on the chorus of "Ballad of Jeanne Christine." "'Look for the blue sky just beyond the gray' / And someday when I'm lost in the cold of December, I will try to remember to mean what I say."
To begin work on the new EP, the group approached Greg Giorgio, who mixed "How Long." They recorded basic tracks back in August 2013 at Tarquin Studios in Bridgeport, then returned to their New Haven house to overdub vocals, strings and trumpet parts. "It was a pretty quick process," Matlack-Elligers said. "We had most of it finished and the mixing done from October right through Thanksgiving." Most of the tracks on "How Long" were written as a trio, but this time around all seven members contributed. "You can really hear everyone's influence on this one. It was a good chance to see how this would gel together."
CD copies of "A Girl I Never Met" will be available at the release party, and digital copies will subsequently be available on iTunes and the other usual retailers. And while being in a family band means there's often little separation between home and band life, the Elligers are taking it in stride.
"We were talking last night," Matlack-Elligers said. "We are both really, really busy between students and school, but we recognize that this is our opportunity… We are always guaranteed time together. It's nice to have this as a distraction, but it's also something so important to us... It never causes tension with us, but it's always on our minds. It's a nice distraction from real life."
GOODNIGHT BLUE MOON appears Jan. 17 at 9 p.m. at Cafe Nine, 250 State St., New Haven. Tickets start at $6. Information: 203-789-8281, cafenine.com.
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