When asked about the genus of his four-piece string-band outfit Fireside Collective’s music, bandleader/singer/mandolinist Jesse Iaquinto replies that the answer may vary from moment to moment, and from one observer to another.
“Depending on where you come from and your experience with folk music, you may think we’re very traditional, or on the other hand, consider us a progressive act,” he says. “We appreciate both ends of the spectrum and may lie on a different end on any given night.”
Based out of Asheville, N.C., the three-year-old outfit began as a sort of solo project for Iaquinto. Having drifted from Greenville to Asheville at the end of his college career at East Carolina University, Iaquinto tells that he was looking to delve into bluegrass and traditional musics after playing in a Greenville-based jam band for a number of years.
Tapping his former bass player Carson White for the project, Iaquinto began working through a cache of songs he had been writing over a period of years. The duo recruited, then parted ways with, several potential bandmates before settling on the current lineup, which includes dobro player Tommy Maher and guitarist Joe Cicero.
The goal upon which the band was founded, says Iaquinto, was “to play bluegrass, and to make it presentable to a larger audience.”
And while, at times, the band approaches the music with due reverence for its traditions, the Collective is unafraid of pushing the boundaries of those traditions when the moment is right. “When we play big bluegrass jams at clubs in Asheville, what we do goes beyond what some of the other more traditional players are doing,” Iaquinto says. “We do a lot of jams, extended parts, improvisations like you might hear from the Grateful Dead.
“Those things aren’t typical of the bluegrass world. We want to honor the traditions, but we also want to be able to step outside of them.”
In fact, Iaquinto argues that bluegrass, as it was conceived by principal pioneer Bill Monroe, was never intended to be a hidebound, rigidly structured art form. Rather, it was a novel melding of old-time and country and pop music — a sort of backwater musical experiment, rendered with an iconoclast’s flair.
“The original vision was truly progressive,” Iaquinto says. “But then over time, it became about how accurately you could cover what’s already been done. To me, that stifled the genre.
“I’m a folk music enthusiast. I once read a book about folk that put forth the argument that the folk musician’s job is to take the struggle of the common man and present it in a way that’s relevant to the time, albeit with acoustic instruments. It’s important to stay relevant. It’s 2017; you can’t be singing about working on the railroad all the time.”
It’s worth noting, too, that, according to Iaquinto, his bandmates are united by their universal fondness for classic rock, beyond even their love for bluegrass; their live repertoire includes a handful of rock cover songs from the likes of Paul Simon and Tom Petty.
“We all have a deep love of classic rock music, Tom Petty, Led Zeppelin…,” Iaquinto says. “We’re always finding ways to incorporate that into the music we play. We do some interesting covers, and we also have something we do where we slow the music down and put a bit of a groove underneath it. We call it ‘funk-grass.'”
Next up, Fireside Collective plans to release an album of 12 new original songs in May, then take to the road, with an eye toward the festival circuit. “We’re kind of an ideal festival band,” Iaquinto says. “We’re acoustic, and we’re very in touch with our roots.
“But also — and this gets back to our rock influence — we really honor the show. We want to put on a performance. To us, it’s about putting on more of a rock ‘n’ roll type of show than just playing bluegrass on a stage.”
Fireside Collective will play Scruffy City Hall Friday, Feb. 24 at 10 p.m.