When last we left old-time band The Armadillos on the eve of releasing their self-titled debut, vocalist Sheila Liming was immersed in a master's program at Carnegie Mellon. Two years later, she's still at CMU, pounding away at her Ph.D. "My colleagues ask me how I find time to [play in a band]. Grad school is brutal, but when I started on my dissertation, I found the time. I was already in [Celtic-folk band] Callan."
Before her current two groups, Ms. Liming performed in outfits either Irish or punk, and in Cleveland even joined a raunchy Celtic-punk hybrid. "I played the bagpipes in that band, which I also do with Callan. But when I started with Armadillos, I concentrated on the accordion. I had a 1964 Crucianelli that my Finnish grandfather had given me. He passed away in 2000, and I inherited it after his death."
On the Armadillos' second CD -- "Better Off a Stranger," released this Friday at Thunderbird Cafe -- she also contributes piano and tin whistle, and plays the autoharp belonging to guitarist Austin Vanasdale. Mandolinist Matt Rychorchewicz and high school buddy Mr. Vanasdale originally netted Ms. Liming via Craiglist, and struck Internet gold again unearthing upright player Josh Dukes to replace an earlier bassist who moved to bluegrass mecca Asheville, N.C.
"Josh was a win because he added an extra vocal layer and also had a van, which meant we could tour," she explains. "Plus he's a helluva nice guy."
Although Mr. Dukes will leave at the end of this year and their bassist search will begin anew, he ably anchors "Stranger," recorded by J Vega at J Bird Studios. "We did the previous album all in one night," recalls Mr. Vanasdale, "but on this CD we took four consecutive weekends which were all-day sessions with a lot more leeway to fine-tune things."
"[Vega] really thinks of himself as a producer. He was tweaking vocals and building up tracks in the background to make it fuller and more lush," adds Ms. Liming.
The album's back cover finds the band standing in an overgrown vacant lot behind the Allegheny Social Club, pairing their Depression-era aesthetic with industrial decay. "I live on North Side, and so does Matt. That's where we've practiced for the past two years, and we've regularly hosted the Wednesday-night bluegrass jam at the Park House. When we started out, we only knew two songs, but increasingly we got a good understanding of the repertoire."
Audiences saunter in as the nearby Banjo Club concludes at 10. Venue owner Zamir Zahavi (thanked on the CD as "falafel master") welcomes bluegrass enthusiasts to drop in and play old-time tunes with the Armadillos and other hosts such as Shelf Life String Band.
Capturing the title of "best alt-folk/alt-country" in the Pittsburgh City Paper for two years, the Armadillos balance precariously between traditionalists and the alt-scene represented by pop-folkies such as Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers. "Last weekend, we did a wedding for our friends who are into goth and metal. Their crowd was happy when we played songs about violence and drinking. Then we did our bluegrass repertoire, and their older parents were freaking out, saying 'It's so great to hear a traditional bluegrass band.' Their faces were lighting up."
At the Thunderbird, The Armadillos will tend towards the new album's originals, such as "The Honorable Dr J.K." (about euthanasia advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian) and "Hillcrest Mine" (about the 2002 Alberta mine disaster). But even when breaking into an old chestnut like "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," the subject matter remains morbid. "People associate it with Johnny Cash or The Carter Family, but don't realize it's an incredibly dark song about the singer burying his mother."
Beagle Brothers dobroist Read Connolly joins the band on the CD's ode to cellar moonshining, "I Think I Need a Drink." No surprise, since the Beagles are the Armadillos' closest analogue in the local music scene. "We have a common interest in melding country or old-time with genres more specific to our generation. They sometimes perform '80s hair-metal in a country style, and we've done similar things with punk covers, such as The Pixies."
Between Park House jams, bar shows, and the informal gatherings held in houses, Ms. Liming notes a distinct influx of newbies in town attempting to get a foothold in the folk and country scenes. "You see them posting on Craigslist. It's antithetical, in a way, because I read a recent review in College Music Journal that said, 'Folk is dead, it's all about electronic and hip-hop now, that's what the indie kids care about.' But you wouldn't think so if you were living in Pittsburgh."music