By Annette Hinkle
January is upon us — which means the East End bluegrass fans are chomping at the bit with excitement.
That’s because every January, the fine folks associated with Sylvester Manor Educational Farm bring some of the country’s hottest bluegrass bands to the area for a one night only concert in the humble auditorium of Shelter Island’s only school.
This year’s concert is January 16 when the Shelter Island School stage will belong to “Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen,” a band that isn’t afraid to tackle traditional bluegrass right alongside less expected genres like jazz, blues and straight up rock and roll.
“I think a lot of people do, for some reason, get pigeon holed into asking ‘What do you sound like?’” says Mr. Solivan, the band’s mandolin player and front man. “I play to the best of my ability whatever I’m putting forth – from Allman Brothers, Earl Scruggs, Little Milton and Charlie Parker, Stevie Wonder to Prince.”
“We have structure — like The Allman Brothers had structure with their tunes, but knew where they were going with big jam outs,” explains Mr. Solivan. “We have a similar thing. Everyone shows their virtuosity on their instruments within the structure of the song. We don’t try to sound like a bluegrass band, we try to sound like us.”
Like the wide range of music they play, Mr. Solivan comes to the band with a collection of diverse life experiences and influences under his belt as well. Mr. Solivan was born in California and he now lives in Alexandria, Virginia — but he’ll tell you that he’s really from Alaska.
The reason can be traced to the huge influence our 49th state had on a young Mr. Solivan, both musically and personally, after he moved there with his mother in the mid-1990s as a recent high school graduate.
“I thought maybe I’d spend the summer there and then head back,” says Mr. Solivan. “In my mind it was temporary.”
But temporary has a funny way of settling in and soon, Mr. Solivan was playing gigs with a female musician friend who had moved to Alaska and married a bush pilot. Before long, the woman’s husband offered Mr. Solivan a job at his company, which, he explains, “involved drilling holes in rock and blowing up mountainsides.”
“It was a perfect job for an 18-year-old,” recalls Mr. Solivan.
It turns out Alaska was also a perfect place to make music as an 18-year-old and Mr. Solivan made connections there that have stuck.
“It was a time in life for me when I was making friends who were life-long and really connecting with people on a different level then I do now,” he says. “The thing about Alaska, I found, is a real sense of community — not only in the music scene but in general.”
“There were aspiring musicians and stalwarts there long before I showed up and became part of the music scene,” recalls Mr. Solivan. “What’s beautiful about the acoustic music scene, it’s almost like you have a conversation with people when you play. They physically and figuratively open their arms to you.”
Mr. Solivan lived in Alaska for almost a decade and even met his wife there. But eventually it became clear that in order to do what he really wanted to do — support himself with his music — he would have to leave the state. A friend suggested he audition for a spot in the US Navy’s band program, and when Mr. Solivan did, he secured a position making music in the military and moved to the Washington DC area.
Among the bands Mr. Solivan played in was the U.S. Navy’s bluegrass band “Country Current,” where he met Jeremy Middleton who recently joined “Dirty Kitchen” as the group’s bass player. The band is rounded out by Mike Munford of Baltimore (the 2013 International Bluegrass Music Association’s – IBMA’s — Banjo Player of the Year) and Seattle and Washington DC based guitarist Chris Luquette (who won the 2013 IBMA Momentum Award for musicians in the early stage of their career). Collectively, “Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen” was named IBMA’s 2014 Instrumental Group of the Year. They also earned a 2015 Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album for their release “Cold Spell,” and they had an eight award sweep at the 2015 WAMMIEs (Washington Area Music Awards).
That’s a lot of awards to tout and besides being a virtuoso on the mandolin, Mr. Solivan is pretty good with food too, which is where the name “Dirty Kitchen” comes from. Though he’s not trained as a chef, Mr. Solivan has some serious experience behind the stove, having worked in restaurants and for a caterer. His mother was also in the restaurant field, and involved in every role from line cook and server to owner.
“She’d sit me on the counter when I was a kid and I’d be stirring stuff on the stove,” says Mr. Solivan. “It’s a passion. I love to cook.”
For Mr. Solivan, making food is almost as important as making music, and on occasion he’s been known to provide a “Dirty Kitchen Experience” in which he not only makes music for a group of people, but also heads into the kitchen to make them dinner as well.
“I’m pretty selective when I’m doing that,” admits Mr. Solivan. “I do it for fans, but it has to be the right timing, and the right vibe. What I really want to do is have an experience like I had growing up.”
Mr. Solivan explains that experience was all about family get togethers which included generous food spreads and a convivial atmosphere that inevitably led to lots of instruments coming out — what Mr. Solivan calls a “cram and jam.”
“My dad is the ninth of 10 kids — all of my dad’s brothers and sisters played,” says Mr. Solivan. “One of my dad’s sisters was in the Western Swing Hall of Fame and I had a grandmother in vaudeville. They would ride unicycles and do jumps and play music at the same time.”
There likely won’t be any unicycles on stage when “Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen” perform on Shelter Island — but what there will be is plenty of down home bluegrass along with a few surprising renditions of other musical genres.
“When we play, we’re not trying to sound like a certain thing – we try to make what we’re playing at the moment sound good,” says Mr. Solivan. “There’s something for everybody. If people don’t like it and have no interest in it whatsoever, then I can almost guarantee their money back.”
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen perform at the Shelter Island School auditorium (33 North Ferry Road, Shelter Island) at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 16. Tickets start at $25 and doors open at 7 p.m. Visit www.sylvestermanor.org to purchase.