Summer Music: Finnegan Blue's High-Energy Americana Is Big On Originality And Soul
The KPBS Summer Music Series continues with the folk stylings of the brother-sister fronted band Finnegan Blue, combining second line jazz and Irish folk with a wholly original energy.
Next up in the 2021 KPBS Summer Music Series is a band that blends rock, bluegrass, Celtic music and New Orleans-style second line jazz for a truly unique sound and a high-octane live show. At the heart of Finnegan Blue is the brother and sister duo Anna Lee and Willie Fleming who are both multi-instrumentalists, vocalists and songwriters.
An ancestry of music
Anna Lee and Willie were raised in a musical family. Their dad, Bill Fleming, played in bluegrass and Irish bands when the siblings were young, and their mother is a singer. Bill now plays electric guitar in Finnegan Blue.
This ancestry of music, combined with their soulful, timeless style, makes it feel like Finnegan Blue's music has been passed down through generations, but all of their music is original.
History and family play a strong part in "Elegy," a song Anna Lee wrote in 2010, shortly after their grandmother passed away. On their 2018 full-length, self-titled album, the siblings' mother also sings harmony on "Elegy," and their uncle plays piano.
The lyrics also honor loved ones of other band members — even though the band is fronted by the siblings, the rest of the band feels like family too.
"A couple of our members have lost significant people in their lives, so each verse is about that particular person, including Willie who lost a friend that year," Anna Lee said.
Friends and family
In a Finnegan Blue show, the stage is packed — drummer Kevin Higuchi, saxophonist Malcolm Jones and Oskar Beckmann on bass — and there's an inspiring joy in the camaraderie and musical chemistry between the musicians.
"Finnegan Blue loves playing live for many reasons, one being the band — we're all really great friends. And family members, but we're all really great friends. So it's kind of like being able to hang out and make art with your best friends and just having a great time on a Saturday night," Anna Lee said.
The band is known for getting the audience on their feet and dancing, but with live performances lacking over the last year and a half, Finnegan Blue has welcomed a few recent chances to perform for an audience.
"It is an amazing feeling of reciprocation," Anna Lee said of the recent live shows. "When the audience and the artists really had the understanding that we're here to have a good time. We went through something pretty rough. Everybody did. Everybody experienced some sort of hardship during the pandemic, and it feels good to put that aside for a musical hour and to just enjoy being around people again. It felt simply amazing."
The band likes to "stretch" tunes in the live show, allowing for more improvisation and experimentation — and more dancing. It's a way for them to explore each song in a way that deepens it, beyond their experience writing the music.
"We get these really big peaks and valleys that are naturally built into the arrangements of the songs, but every time we play the song, we learn more about it — more and more every time. So yeah, the live show, there's just these huge builds and arrival points that I think the audience can really feel in that moment," Willie said. "And the fact that, yeah, we're all just super tight homies up there on stage."
From the marching band to second line jazz
On some pieces, the band brings out a unique second line jazz sound. This style was born in marching band, particularly in the SDSU Aztec band where Willie and Anna Lee both played trombone.
Second line jazz is a traditional form, which originated in New Orleans with the people who filed into a makeshift formation after the parade brass band passed, playing along on their own instruments just for the joy of it.
"We wanted to make sure that our show was as awesome as possible. And we both played trombone, and there's another guy who plays saxophone. We gave it a try. We played some songs and they went over super well and we decided to run with it," Anna Lee said.
The band also said that the style of jazz feels like an essential addition to the many styles they already play, whether it's folk, Irish or bluegrass.
"The New Orleans, second-line feel lends itself really well. It mixes really well with a folk music style. You know, it's kind of the original form of jazz. I'm not going to say that it is the original form, but it's kind of similar to folk music in that way where it's very much an old style of playing," Willie said. "A lot of that same emotion translates through all those styles of music. So it just made sense. Yeah, we have the instruments. We got to fill up some time. Let's bust them out."
'Keep on spinning'
"I wrote 'Run' when I was a teenager, and it's one of those tunes that when you hear it back, you find new meanings in it every single time," Willie said.
"Run" is distinctly personal to the siblings and their childhood, going through good times as well as pain and tragedy. In shows, it's just Willie and Anna Lee on stage for this tune.
"It talks about growing up, getting older and experiencing the different vulnerabilities that we have in our lives, and then the way it ends is just that, yeah, that's life. The world's going to keep on spinning, but we're going to keep on singing," Willie said. "At the end of the day, there's not really much you can do to control everything around you. So you just gotta keep celebrating what you're able to enjoy, and that's why the ending feels very triumphant."