Last night, I ventured out of my cozy home at 10 PM to check out a show at the Middle East Upstairs, in Cambridge’s Central Square. The band, Aunt Martha, is an all-boy ensemble led by singer/songwriter Tim Noyes, a Massachusetts native based out of New York City. (I couldn’t help thinking of the all-girl old-time band Uncle Earl—are these ironic, or just vaguely folksy, titles?) Noyes is joined by Garrett Leahy on drums and Brian Kim on violin and electric bass, and together the trio adds considerable heft to otherwise mellow folk-rock fare.
The Middle East Upstairs, a self-consciously grungy venue with a small stage and an open floor, was packed by an exuberant crowd of 20-somethings, most of whom seemed either to know the songs by heart or the members of the band personally. Throughout their hour-long set Aunt Martha favored driving, up-tempo numbers, matching the audience’s boisterous energy. Noyes nevertheless managed to deliver an emotive performance, his husky voice rising insistently above the buzz of the crowd.
Clad in a red flannel shirt and a grey ski cap, a scruffy beard masking his youthful face and an acoustic guitar slung across this thin shoulders, Noyes was the picture-perfect vagabond folksinger. His songs are the focal point, and the strength, of Aunt Martha. Noyes sings of typical things—relationships, heartbreak, Detroit—but he has an ear for catchy melodic hooks and a knack for writing lyrics that stick. Songs like “Bloodshot,” “No Excuses,” and “Neighbor Song,” with their remarkably singable refrains, elicited raucous sing-alongs from the audience. And to anybody that happened to be listening, Noyes’ lyrics conveyed a gentle weariness, told with pithy eloquence, that belied his obvious youth.
Backing up Noyes, though no less present, were drummer Garrett Leahy and violinist and occasional bassist Brian Kim. Leahy’s downbeat-heavy drumming, though lacking in complexity, infused Aunt Martha’s songs with a thrumming, anthemic joy. Kim played with a Classical violinist’s stiffness and conviction, favoring simple, linear melodies—although the pickup he used to amplify his violin made it sound harsh and tinny, masking what was likely beautiful tone.
I’ll admit—I did occasionally wish for more interesting string parts or a little bit of backbeat. But Leahy and Kim lent a careening energy to the music that was oddly compelling, at times pushing Noyes’ sensitive ballads to a fever pitch.
The trio is currently in the middle of a months-long cross-country tour to promote their self-produced EP, Bloodshot. Much of the subtleties of the music on the EP were lost at the live show, thanks to the din of the crowd and a bad mix. But Aunt Martha’s ability to rock a room, however small, overcame all—and, I hope, points to bigger things to come.