September-October 2006

The Stairwell Sisters - Old-Time String Band Breaks Out

By Steve Goldfield

The Stairwell Sisters, from the San Francisco Bay Area, have been honing their traditional sound through six years and two widely acclaimed CDs, with a third on the way soon. Since their appearance at the International Bluegrass Music Association, they have been touring nati

onally on the festival circuit. The Stairwells will make their Los Angeles debut on Saturday, September 9, at the Coffee Gallery Backstage and at the Peter Strauss Ranch on Sunday, September 10. They are also playing the Red Barn farther north in Los Osos on September 8. Before that comes their first East Coast tour in August, including an appearance at Lincoln Center. They have toured in the Midwest and Active Image were named "band to watch" at Colorado's North Fork Valley Bluegrass. In the fall the Stairwells will be in Texas. Other important gigs coming are opening for the New Lost City Ramblers at the Berkeley Old-Time Music Convention in September and playing at the mammoth Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in October.

The band's popularity is rooted in their old-time repertoire and their tight and personable stage presence. They have a very dynamic show which allows the personality of each band member to emerge and shine. The band was formed in San Francisco in 2000 after Lisa Berman and Sue Sandlin started singing together in a stairwell in the building where both worked as graphic designers. Lisa had played with Stephanie Prausnitz and Martha Hawthorne in the Crooked Jades. When Martha found clogging teacher Evie Ladin, the band was complete and the personnel has not changed since. In their six years together, their music has deepened and grown, and audiences are responding enthusiastically everywhere they go.

Stephanie plays fiddle and grew up in the Bay Area, though she was living in Atlanta when she took up fiddling. Stephanie brings lots of great tunes to the band and claims to have the biggest mouth on stage. She is even a closet banjo player. Evie plays clawhammer banjo and also clogs on stage. She was raised on southern music and dance in New Jersey, where her parents' house welcomed many traditional musicians and where Evie and her sister danced and sang from an early age. Martha, who plays bass, grew up in Orange County but made her way to San Francisco at the age of 18. Sue, on guitar and tiple (ed. a small chordophone in the guitar family), is from Fremont. Lisa plays dobro/slide, banjo, and guitar and started out in Chicago.

All five sing and blend voices in heavenly harmonies. Their sound has solidified and become richer and turned into their own unique music.

They have thrived on the growing Bay Area old-time community. Band members have been active in organizing both the annual San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time Festival, held in February, and the annual Berkeley Old-Time Music Convention, held in September.

The Stairwell Sisters have been receiving tremendous acclaim wherever they go. The San Francisco Chronicle described them as "a powerhouse ensemble whose vocal harmonies and stomping rhythms are abetted by Evie Ladin's dexterous clogging." The Old-Time Herald wrote, "Combine this band's vocal prowess with skilled multi-instrumental chops and a hellbent-for-leather attitude, and you have a wild, funky recording.... Brittle, hard-edged, exciting ensemble singing ... in which the Sisters rocket into the high lonesome stratosphere." Bluegrass Unlimited reviewed their second CD: "The Stairwell Sisters’ latest release is reflective of their ever-expanding artistry and reputation....Feet All Over the Floor is old-time music at its finest and establishes the Stairwell Sisters as significant interpreters of traditional American music." The San Jose Mercury News enthused, “Blazing a brilliant trail through a genre usually dominated by men [with] an energy that flows as much from the audience to the bandstand as among the players themselves.... the new album captures the band's close vocal harmonies, haunting ballads and lock-step square dance grooves with passion and precision.”

The band's two CDs, The Stairwell Sisters (2003) and Feet All Over the Floor (2005) are both on Yodel-Ay-Hee. Evie Ladin's instructional DVD and video, The Basics of Southern Appalachian Flatfoot Clogging (2002) is on Crosspulse Records. The first CD has just one original, Down to the Door by Evie, but the second has six originals by Lisa, Evie, Sue, and Martha. The band's original material is written seamlessly within the same tradition as the rest of their music.  The Stairwell Sisters are truly bringing old-time and traditional entertainment to new places and audiences, and they are doing it with characteristic panache. More information about the band and samples from their recordings can be heard at .