Cabinet initially won over fans as a fast-picking, jamming bluegrass band, but the band’s new album, “The Sugarhouse Sessions,” shows a lot has changed in 15 years.
“We’re not a bluegrass band,” the band’s JP Biondo says. “We have the capability to be a bluegrass band. We started out there, but we’re just a band and just playing whatever comes out. It’s funny. We advertised ourselves and promoted ourselves as Pennsylvania bluegrass for a while, and we’re still going to play bluegrass songs forever and love them, but it’s not a bluegrass band.”
Following a hiatus, the band reconvened to record a pair of songs it released in 2020, “Silver Sun” and “Wheels.” The songs, written by Pappy Biondo, JP’s cousin and a fellow founding member, “had the vibe that our music was inevitably going to evolve to” — a contemplative, midtempo, sometimes hypnotic feel that JP says has a lot to do with Pappy’s recent fascination with and exploration of the music of JJ Cale.
The album is the first Cabinet has released through Astrology Days Records, a label started by Pappy and drummer John Morgan Kimock (not a member of Cabinet) and the first to include the newest band member, Brian “Nugget” Corby.
“We tried the two-drummer thing, and that was good,” JP says, referring to a previous lineup that featured founding drummer Jami Novak as well as Josh Karis. “This band is its own creature, its own animal, and it kind of goes in whatever direction it wants to, and sometimes it doesn’t tell us where it’s going. Brian, or Nugget as we call him, first of all, he brings a heart and a vibe to the band. He has a really great aura about him, he’s happy and he’s always smiling. And he’s a great musician.”
Nugget, a West Virginia native living in Charlottesville, Va., who was a member of The Hackensaw Boys, brings “all those little flavors” to Cabinet’s sound, JP says. “We were missing that a little bit,” he says. “Jami is phenomenal, a really good drummer, so was Josh, but Nugget adds those little flavors and sweetens everything up, and all the gaps are truly filled.”
The band — who will perform at the Sherman Theater in Stroudsburg, Pa., on Friday, April 1 and Saturday, April 2, as well as at Brooklyn Bowl on Sunday, April 10 — was joined on “The Sugarhouse Sessions” by a handful of guests, including Amy Helm, who sang on “Cards” and “Stowe Me Away.” Helm, a renowned singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist and the daughter of The Band’s Levon Helm, crossed paths with Cabinet a few years ago at The Ardmore Music Hall near Philadelphia. After a lot of back and forth and pandemic-driven delays, she came to the studio in Vermont where Cabinet recorded and tracked her vocals.
“She’s the most wonderful person in the world, and we love her,” JP says. “She’s our sister now, as far as we’re concerned.”
“Stowe Away” is also the first song the Biondos wrote together since the self-titled debut album.
Other guests on the album include Vermont drummer Russ Lawton of the Trey Anastasio Band, Roy Williams, Nick Driscoll, Brett Lanier and Al Smith.
While Cabinet’s members are now scattered among Northeastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and Vermont, it was in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area that the group formed. That’s where they met Williams, who plays piano on the album, and Driscoll, who adds saxophone.
“We’ve had Roy play with a bunch of times, and he’s a phenomenal musician,” says JP. “Very much like Nugget, he just fills in those spaces. The song can stand on its own without Roy, but throw Roy in, and now it’s complete.”
Driscoll, JP says, “is an amazing horn player and has become a good friend of the band. We’ve had him play live with us. He puts an exclamation point on the songs he’s on. He’s one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever played with, and he’s just a sweet, sweet cherry on top of everything. He’s so fun and just smart. Some of the songs he recorded on this album he did in one take without even listening to the song. We didn’t have him in the studio, he recorded them remotely with Roy. … In no time, boom, the guy was done, and he just crushed it.”
Another Scranton connection is felt on JP’s song, “I Talk to My Friend.” He wrote the tune for Brian Craig, a long-time friend of the band, musician and beloved co-owner of a bar in town, The Bog. He died of cancer in 2019.
“That’s Brian Craig’s song,” JP says. “Obviously, we lost him a few years ago. I just loved that guy. You lose somebody, and it’s tough, especially when they played a really big role in your life and you really wanted to talk to them sometimes. That one really stuck with me for a while. I’m lucky at 35 to say he’s the only really close friend I’ve lost. I wrote that song maybe a year ago. It all kind of poured out. Sometimes inspiration strikes, and it all falls down onto paper. It was all just sitting there waiting for me.
“That one means a lot to me, and I’ve already had people reach out to me on social media and say, ‘Thank you for writing that song, because I get every single word.’ I wasn’t expecting that at all, but I was really pleased. Even after I wrote it, it was really super emotional to me. I wrote it and recorded it on my phone and put it away. I couldn’t even listen to it. But it’s good to get out of my system because I recognized that holding onto those feelings was selfish and Bri is in a better spot now.”
Photos by Sam Watson