The roots of bluegrass music in Connecticut run deeper than you'd expect.
There's an active bluegrass association (ctbluegrass.org) that provides all the details: local and regional bands, upcoming concerts, jam sessions — even rules on how to jam responsibly with others. Each summer, the Podunk Bluegrass Festival, now in its 18th year, reliably draws crowds to camp out, listen and pick. And although you may have to dig deep into their event calendars, most live music venues in the state offer some acoustic or folk-based sounds, and not just the hipster kind.
One band making its presence known is Switch Factory, a Torrington-based quartet with a deep repertoire of traditional songs and originals — roughly 140, with 35 or so in regular rotation — and sturdy three-part harmonies. Guitarist Jason Perkel, a pediatrician, began jamming with Nat Worden, the father of one of his patients and also a six-string player. "We got together and knew 12 songs right off the bat," Perkel said. "He said, 'Let's go see [Band drummer Levon Helm's] Midnight Ramble.' That was a pretty good starting point for a friendship."
Todd Stoughton, a Bethlehem mandolin player, joined Perkel and Worden, along with Fairfield bassist Jona Ziac. They practice in an old Bantam switch factory (hence the name). The vibe of that space, Perkel said, fit well with the music that drew them together — traditional bluegrass, as filtered through the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, the Band and Gillian Welch — while its physical age hearkened back to Connecticut's long-gone manufacturing days.
"All these guys [in Switch Factory] would consider themselves to be Jerry Garcia nuts," Perkel said. "[Garcia] brought bluegrass to a lot of people who hadn't heard it before. 'Old and In the Way,' 'Workingman's Dead' — that was the first time I'd heard that stuff."
They gelled. Perkel took lessons from Connecticut musician Phil Rosenthal, formerly of the Seldom Scene. Worden, who handles most of the vocal arrangements, sang the high parts, with Stoughton and Perkel fitting in below. None of them are virtuosic pickers (Stoughton is probably the most fleet-fingered). Through weekly practice, they built a three- to four-hour-long songlist. "Some of the private party gigs we've played: they want us to play for that long," Perkel said. "This is the first band I've been in that's like that."
Now, whenever Switch Factory performs, "there's somebody who'd like to hire us to do the next gig," Perkel said. On Thursday, Sept. 4, they'll headline a show at Infinity Hall in Norfolk on Thursday, Sept. 4, sharing a bill with the Zolla Boys, another young Connecticut act to keep an eye on.
The majority of their songs are covers, but Perkel said they're trying to write more original songs. They don't plan to record anytime soon, although a live CD from a recent show at Torrington's Warner Theatre will be available at the Norfolk show. They're feeling their way toward a future that involves more playing and more fun.
"In general, it's music that's just honest," Perkel said. "You don't have to have a lot of effects and equipment… The Americana-bluegrass thing is the main focus, but we'll all go out and see all kinds of music. We are all really good friends, which is why we enjoy playing together so much."
SWITCH FACTORY performs at Infinity Hall in Norfolk on Thursday, Sept. 4, with the Zolla Boys. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $19-$29. Information: infinityhall.com.