Spirit Family Reunion’s Nick Panken to Perform at the Mystic Folkways Festival on Sunday

Nick Panken (Credit: Westerly Sound)

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On October 9 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Mystic Folkways will be ringing in the fall season at the Mystic Seaport Museum with an all-day music festival presented & curated by Westerly Sound. Local fixture James Maple, Martin Courtney from New Jersey indie rockers Real Estate, Ian Felice from the New York City folk rock act The Felice Brothers and John McCauley & Ian O’Neil from the Providence rock and roll band Deer Tick among others will be performing acoustic renditions of songs. There will also be boat rides, tours of the nearby Mystic Shipyard and plenty of oysters to eat.

Also taking part in the event is Nick Panken from the Brooklyn folk act Spirit Family Reunion. He’ll be performing some brand new solo material at 12:30 p.m. while being joined on stage by some friends.

We talked ahead of the festival about a new single released by Panken’s band inspired by a gospel song, performing in various settings, looking forward to coming back to the seaport and hopefully recording some of his solo songs in the near future.

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RD: Back in June, Spirit Family Reunion released the single “Time To Go Back Home.” From listening to it, getting lost and knowing where you need to be seems to be the underlying theme of the song. What would you say inspired the songwriting process and the lyrics?

NP: That’s a song that we learned from an old gospel 45 record that dates back to the early ‘70s by a group called The Sunset Travelers. It’s a really cool blues recording and our band kind of started out playing a lot of songs from The Carter Family which is kind of like a cross section between country, folk and gospel. What we really did with that song, as a personal mark from us, was switching some of the specifically Christian lyrics to make it more of a story of redemption and a renewed sense of purpose. While we’re not practicing members of any church, the band has always related strongly to the essence of a lot of those old songs. We recorded it a few years ago just kind of as a test as we were setting up our own studio, then we had booked a few shows this summer and they were the first we were going to play since 2019 so we wanted to release that song just to share something new.

Unfortunately a few of us each individually got COVID the week leading up to that run of shows so we suddenly had to cancel them. The only thing new from Spirit Family Reunion is that song, which will not be played on Sunday by the way. I hope that’s not disappointing to anyone but it’s going to be a solo set from me and I will be playing with a few other musicians backing me up. It’s going to be a really different tenor, in many ways it’ll be the opposite of the energy of Spirit Family Reunion.

RD: I get that. You mentioned how the single is inspired by a 45 of a gospel song, so who discovered that 45 you and the rest of the band got introduced to?

NP: I heard it played on a radio show on what many people call the “greatest radio station in the world,” WFMU which broadcasts out of Jersey City, New Jersey. I heard it played on a Sunday afternoon radio show called “Sinner’s Crossroads” and the DJ plays a lot of old, obscure gospel records that he has collected over the years. When I heard that song I was like, “this is great and I think that my band can experiment with playing this song.” And I tried to find information about it as we do these days by searching for it online and I couldn’t find one single thing. I couldn’t find anything at all about it so I reached out to the DJ to know which song it was and he told me the details about it. He sent me the mp3 of the record and we listened to it, as far as I know ours is the only recording of that composition that’s available online but I’ll have to say that the Sunset Travelers’ recording is far superior.

RD: It’s cool that you found such a rare song to begin with and get inspired by. You just mentioned how you’re going to be performing solo as part of Mystic Folkways, so when you’re not making music with Spirit Family Reunion do you prepare yourself any differently when it comes to either approach or headspace than you would for a show with the band?

NP: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s extremely different. Over the past few years, I’ve played dozens of shows as a solo artist with me alone on stage playing a guitar and through playing those shows I’ve been kind of experimenting with how to convey my songs in a different demeanor that’s much more subdued. While on tour I opened up for one of my favorite songwriters Ian Felice, who is also playing the show on Sunday, and just getting to play with him night after night in front of an audience was a really big learning experience for me. With the band it’s about pushing a lot of air and bringing a lot of energy, a lot of rhythm, a lot of volume and a wide array of sounds in order to stir people.

Learning how to play solo is really about learning how to try to stir people from a very different direction, it’s much more internal. It’s much more about holding the fragility of the moment and the silence that can occur when it’s just you on stage in between notes and in between lines. It’s been really, really fun, extremely nerve-wracking and a really exciting, inspiring and rejuvenating experience. With this show I decided to try to recruit a few buddies to back me up and sort of continue that approach of being very gentle while maintaining a lot of space in the songs but still trying to convey the intensity and hopefully move people just as much as fast, uptempo songs are able to do.

RD: It sounds like it’ll be an interesting experience. Spirit Family Reunion has played in all sorts of places from living rooms and barns to music festivals including Austin City Limits and Newport Folk. With Mystic Folkways by the water at Mystic Seaport in the middle of the New England fall, the landscape should be beautiful on Sunday.

NP: I hope my hands aren’t too cold to play guitar, that’s my first thought because playing outside in the fall can be dicey depending on the weather. I know that space, I know it’s gorgeous and I know it’s going to be a special afternoon right on the water.

Like you said, the band has played in all kinds of settings and it’s one of the really dynamic parts of what we do. We can play anywhere, we can play in a subway station or on a big stage and anywhere in between. Playing solo and playing the music that I’m working with now, it can be really difficult to play really quiet songs in a loud bar so I’ve found myself being very selective in where I agree to go play.

On one hand, that presents a challenge because I don’t get the opportunity to play as much and hone the craft as much in public. Also, at the same time it makes it so much more special and exciting when I do get to play and I do get to bring this music to a setting that I think will be really conducive to the landscape I’m attempting to work within.

RD: It seems like it’s going to play to your advantage a bit. Can we expect a new full-length album or a new EP from Spirit Family Reunion to follow up “Time To Go Back Home,” or even something from this new solo project you have going on? What are you and the band’s plans going into next year?

NP: Spirit Family Reunion really has no plans. We were all excited to play a few shows this summer and also disappointed when we had to cancel them so there might be a bit of an appetite for us to find something to do somewhere down the line if the right opportunity presents itself. What I’m creatively focused on now is this material I’m working on and it’s been a big learning experience getting this ensemble ready to play on Sunday. I would love to continue going in this direction and hopefully make some kind of recording of this material really soon.