A Hudson Valley harpist, vocalist and songwriter with millions of plays on Spotify, a rapidly growing fanbase including die-hard Deadheads, and a three-night residency at Kingston’s hottest music venue – now that’s a story.
Don’t miss Mikaela Davis and her band Southern Star performing the last of her residency evenings at Tubby’s in Kingston on Wednesday, February 1. Or if you read this article in time, you can catch them on Wednesday, January 25, 7-11 p.m.
A resident of Catskill for the past three years, Davis grew up near Rochester, where her elementary school offered harp lessons. “I was eight when I saw a harp for the first time,” she recalls. “I was in awe of it. I thought it was the coolest-looking instrument I’d ever seen, and so mysterious.” From the age of four, she was singing and plunking around on a piano her mother obtained for free from a local church. “I can’t remember wanting to do anything else besides music.”
Since middle school, Davis has been close friends with drummer Alex Cote, who grew up around the corner from her house and waited at the same bus stop. “When I started writing songs,” she says, “I showed them to Alex, and he said, ‘I’ll play a show with you.’” They were 18 when they performed their first gig at an artists collective in Rochester. Soon after, they took on guitarist Cian McCarthy, followed by Cian’s brother Shane, who plays bass and mandolin. Five years ago, Kurt Johnson joined the band, playing pedal steel, lap steel, and guitar.
All five members of the band, known as Southern Star, write songs, performing what Davis’s website describes as “a genre-bending catalog that weaves together 60s pop-soaked melodies, psychedelia, and driving bluegrass rock.”
The band has played in Europe a couple of times and has recently been touring the United States. Davis is happy to be making a living from her passion. Occasionally, she takes on session work, and her harp can be heard on albums by the Decemberists, Sara Watkins, Circles Around The Sun, and other musicians.
“Music puts me in a subliminal state,” she says. “I feel more connected with everything around me when I have the harp leaning on my shoulder.”
The Grateful Dead repertoire blossomed when Davis was invited to sit in with guitarist Bob Weir, a founding member of the Dead. He was seeking session musicians to perform with his current band, Bobby Weir and the Wolf Brothers. Davis’s friend forwarded a video of Southern Star to Weir’s manager. “He had a bagpiper, and my friend thought he might be into a harpist. His manager showed the video to the band, and they were into it.”
When Davis performed with Weir at the Landmark Theater in Syracuse, Grateful Dead fans began following her on social media. She went on to play the Lockn’ Festival in Virginia with Weir, and they appeared on Bob’s Tiny Desk, an NPR program on YouTube. Host Bob Boilen invites stripped-down versions of bands to play in his cubbyhole of an office.
Davis and Southern Star were picked up by Relix, a live streaming site that grew out of a handmade newsletter devoted to people recording Grateful Dead concerts. After Southern Star performed a live set at the Relix studio, their recording of “Bird Song” was released on vinyl. Davis was asked to play several gigs with Dead bassist Phil Lesh. Meanwhile, “The Dead fans kept coming,” says Davis. “I love the music, and my band are all huge fans as well.”
Their interpretation of the songs is altered by the Southern Star instrumentation. With harp and pedal-steel, plus Davis’s rich contralto, the familiar tunes take on a soaring lightness, while masterful guitar and drum work replicate the driving force of the Dead’s music.
Southern Star practiced still more Dead tunes for the residency at Tubby’s. At the show on January 25, they’ll play a set of their own compositions and a second set of all the music on Jerry Garcia’s solo album, Garcia. On February 1, again the first set will be original songs, while the theme of the second set will be Mik’s Picks, Davis’s compilation of live songs the Grateful Dead released from 1973 to 1987. As she observes, “We have learned dozens of Dead songs.”
Mikaela Davis and Southern Star will appear Wednesday, January 25, and Wednesday, February 1, from 7 to 11 p.m., at Tubby’s, 586 Broadway, Kingston. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door, and they can be purchased at https://www.tubbyskingston.com/.