Taarka to Lake Tahoe: Resilient bluegrass band in the Crystal Bay Casino’s Red Room
Come hell or high water, Taarka is going to keep on playing tunes.
The Colorado string band specializes in riding out disasters with barely a blip (and perhaps a bit of added inspiration) impacting its music.
Taarka is husband and wife David Tiller (mandolin, vocals) and Enion Pelta-Tiller (fiddle, vocals), along with Troy Robey (bass, background vocals) and Mike Robinson (guitar, background vocals). The quartet takes the stage at Crystal Bay Casino’s Crown Room on Saturday, July 25.
David and Enion met in New York City in 2001, after Tiller took a break from national success with his former string band ThaMuseMeants to study jazz theory.
“We were introduced by a banjo player that found us both separately busking in the subways,” he said. “So we got together and started playing music in this band Brooklyn Browngrass. We figured out that we liked writing and playing music in a similar style.”
The two quickly became involved romantically, a bond that included sharing the events of September 11, 2001 firsthand. They watched the day’s events unfold from a singular viewpoint, heading to the top of their apartment right after the second plane hit.
“We went up to our roof and played music together for the whole day,” Tiller said. “We sat there watching these buildings crumble and burn, and hundreds of ambulances and fire engines race through the streets.
“At the moment we had no idea what would happen next; in New York City, there was martial law, they wouldn’t let anyone leave for three days.”
The two decided to leave town within a few months, heading west for Portland, where they formed Taarka.
The group set out playing instrumental gypsy-jazz, moving rapidly into national touring by 2002. After another relocation in 2006, David and Enion began to pursue and develop the vocal side of their sound.
“After many years we started singing a lot more,” Tiller said. “We decided to move to Colorado, to a little town called Lyons, Colorado, and songwriting and singing became equally as important to us as writing instrumental music, and equally a part of our songs.”
With the transition, Taarka’s sound underwent a shift, fusing elements of roots-Americana and Celtic music into their established gypsy and jazz foundation.
“We play mostly original music, both Enion and I are writers,” Tiller said. “We’re influenced by so many different branches of music. We don’t always jump around and play different styles though. A lot of times it comes together and kind of culminates in one song. We’ll go from a roots, tripnotic sort of old-timey music to more danceable, gypsy jazz to sort of a chugging pop song style and then even sort of a ’70s disco bluegrass.”
The two essentially grew up on opposite sides of the country, both surrounded by musical elements. Enion is from the California Bay Area, with a classical and jazz aficionado of a mother and a jazz guitarist for a father. David hails from Waterford, Virginia, a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a half-hour from Harper’s Ferry (of John Brown fame).
Talking to an American musician with a background stepped in Civil War history (his mother recently finished writing a book based on the letters of an ancestor that served and survived the entire war), Tahoe Onstage had to ask Tiller about his take on the recent national discussion surrounding the removal of the flag of the Confederate States of America from public places.
“The flag itself has a historical relevance, you don’t want to get rid of it in that respect,” he mused. “But on the other hand, I think it’s a silly symbol. Definitely the hate and the prejudice that has been wrapped around it and that it’s a sign for, needs to be educated and gotten rid of as fast as possible.”
While Enion and David’s upbringing’s provided the base for their musical influence, the inspiration for 2015’s “Making Tracks Home” comes from a much more immediate and traumatic personal experience.
“It was two years ago in 2013, we bought a house in 2010 here (Lyons),” Tiller said. In 2013, there was a great flood that wiped our house out. We had 7 feet of water in our house, the river went right through our house. We got out basically with the musical instruments and our pajamas, and had to start all over.”
The two refused to let the event stand in the way of their musical careers, embarking instead on a deeply cathartic bout of songwriting.
“It was sort of born out of the flood in a lot of respects,” Tiller said of the recent album. “The flood was, even though we went through it fairly healthfully emotionally, we weren’t destroyed; but we were in shock. A lot of our emotional experience came out in writing. We wrote a lot of music after the flood that winter.
“I think it’s one of our more emotionally penetrating records overall. It’s not necessarily a dance record or a rock record, but it has a lot of passion and a lot of depth.”
The album featured Sam Grisman on bass, and a duo of Grant Gordy (also a Grisman band member) and Ross Martin on guitar.
Taarka has been touring in support of the album this summer, with stops at festivals and venues around both coasts of the U.S. The group is especially looking forward to an appearance on an upcoming PBS special as well as another at the Lyons Folk Festival. Entitled “Bluegrass Underground,” the TV spot will take place in a mine 350 feet below the outskirts of Nashville, while the appeal of playing music in one’s own backyard should be obvious.
“It’s exciting to play a big music festival in our home town,” Tiller said.
In another high point of the year, Taarka’s song “A Whole New You” was featured in the film “1971,” a documentary about the theft of a cache of FBI documents that helped open the modern chapter of American distrust of government.
The band also hopes to take the new tunes overseas before long; Taarka is currently working on the details of a visit to the BBC’s “Celtic Connections” program in Scotland, along with an accompanying European tour.
Expect a follow-up album to “Making Tracks Home” before long as well.
“We’re gearing up to record a brand new CD right now because we have a bunch of brand new material,” Tiller said. “It’s going to be a little bit more upbeat, it’s got some more danceable tracks.”
TaarkaWhen: 9 p.m. Saturday, July 25
Where: Crystal Bay Casino Red Room
ABOUT Josh Sweigert
Josh grew up on the California coast with a deep appreciation for bluegrass and string band music as well as the great outdoors. A guitarist and singer, he plays solo acoustic gigs in South Lake Tahoe.