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Ashvegas music writer Caleb Calhoun at left on the road with Fireside Collective.

I wake up somewhere around the South Carolina-Georgia line to Carson White, Fireside Collective’s upright bass player blasting Lion by Toto and realize that we’re almost to our destination. For the first several hours it was as if the car stereo were positively stuck on the Sirius XM Grateful Dead, but it’s clear by the change in energy that this is the final leg.

So far the van conversation has ranged from cheesing about Tank and The Bangas to the difference between vulvas and vaginas. Oh, and Fireside Collective’s packed upcoming festival season. The truth is that for a band that has been together in some form for more than a decade, these cats seem hungrier than ever. It’s a hunger tempered by a solid dose of professional success and self-awareness that all five musicians share. There’s no desperation here, just a powerful collective confidence that frames the questions about their future not as “What’s next for us?” but rather “What isn’t?”

With the release of their second studio album under the moniker Fireside Collective coming on March 14 at The Grey Eagle, and with a summer that includes stops at DelFest, MerleFest and Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, the Collective is right to be feeling good about the path ahead.

This night, they’ll open for The Infamous Stringdusters, a Grammy Award-winning quintet whose bassist Travis Book produced Fireside’s newest offering, Elements. Before the evening’s over, I’ll be listening to him sing their praises as talented, professional and teachable musicians over a few cans of Sweetwater. For right now, I’m just taking their word for it.

Fireside Collective at the Georgia Theatre./ Photo by Caleb Calhoun

It’s a fitting full circle for a band whose five-piece harmonies and melodic Colorado new-grass riffs have drawn comparisons to The ‘Dusters. Tonight, while sharing a stage with their producer, they’ll offer the work he produced for the first time at a merch table. And after a smoking opening set that lasts the better part of an hour, they’ll have trouble keeping it there.

Of course, there’s still a lot of work to accomplish between now and then. As White navigates the 15-passenger van through gaggle after gaggle of prospective university students, I’m a little awed by how casually they seem to treat the anxiety of arriving on time. If they have a conscience, it isn’t showing. I’m still picking their brains on everything from future goals to current obsessions as we pull up in front of the marquee.

There’s no doubt that the new album represents a powerful step forward for the band (White, founder Jessie Iaquinto on mandolin, Joe Cicero on acoustic guitar, Alex Genova on banjo, Tommy Maher on Dobro). Recorded at Echo Mountain Recording Studio in Asheville with Julian Dreyer engineering and the aforementioned Book producing, Elements builds on the sound they cultivated in their previous Life Between the Lines. Elements follows the same path of choosing to embrace the studio and all that comes with that. These are layered tracks, built and labored over to accentuate the type of artistry and expertise each of these musicians excels at.

“I mean, I’d love to win a Grammy at some point,” says Iaquinto, the band’s founder and mandolinist, and you can tell he doesn’t think that’s in any way out of range. “I also accomplished a lot of other goals with this last album – got the secret bong rip in it,” he adds, and once again I can tell he isn’t joking.

You can almost feel the air and space and stained glass inside of Echo Mountain as you make your way through the tracks on Elements. And what emerges throughout is a portrait of a band that is playing a complex mix of bluegrass, country, jazz and God-knows-what-else in a format that’s simple enough to be palatable to a mass audience.

Of course, you can also feel the bouldered earth around Bent Creek, the muddy water of the French Broad and the fiery angst of the Asheville musician from start to finish. From the rootsy, rusty vibes of Bring It On Home to the nostalgic, somewhat dream-like lyrics of Where The Broad River Runs, you can feel their connection to not just the studio, but also the micah-flecked creek beds and precipice-studded mountains of Western North Carolina.

The record is a project born from the road and forged in the fires of a v8 Chevy Express Van. It’s an album that misses home, like you miss home being on the road, but hits the mark on every level. Elements is a powerful and unflinching work of art from start to finish, and it still somehow feels a little like a warm-up for their live show.

At least that is what I’m thinking as I stand in the back of a nearly full Georgia Theatre and watch as Fireside Collective steps forward together to play one of the best opening sets I’ve seen recently. Live, this band positively overwhelms you, scooping you out of your everyday, erasing that stupid thing you said at work this morning and replacing it with a warmth in your chest and a shit-eating grin on your face.

These guys are masters of their instruments, and they’re writing songs that fit their range and style perfectly. They can run you over like a Mack truck or tiptoe along the hair on the back of your neck like a fairy. And God, all of that harmonizing. Even the instruments take on vocal characteristics creating the feel of a jam during carefully composed sections.

Fireside Collective is, from left, Alex Genova, Joe Cicero, Jesse Iaquinto, Carson White and Tommy Maher./ Photo courtesy of Mountain Home Music Company

“It’s cool to see five people all singing and playing their instruments at the same time,” Iaquinto tells me later. “That’s just a fun thing.”

It’s true, and songs featuring their expansive harmonies like High Time and Winding Road should find themselves immediately embraced by live audiences. Over time several of these songs also provide more than an ample bone structure to be dissected, broken down and used as the thematic backbone of an entire set or even show.

And truly, for a sound that comes to your ears so simply and sweetly, it is the mind-blowing complexity of Fireside Collective’s album and live show that make it so difficult to describe in a 1,200-word piece. In some ways, it’s as if the studio and live versions of Fireside Collective are two separate entities. Their record makes you want to buy an old Honda, put the CD on repeat and drive until the yellow lines blur. Their live sound stops you in your tracks and forces you to give it your full attention.

Fireside Collective plays at The Grey Eagle at 9pm on Saturday, March 14 and at the Raleigh Pour House on March 13. Tickets for the Asheville show are available HERE.

Caleb Calhoun is a poet and author living in Asheville. He’s a co-founder of Humans And Poetry and the Asheville Slam Poetry Team, as well as a freelance author in a variety of fields. He can be reached at caleb.calhoun@gmail.com and followed at www.facebook.com/humansandpoetry

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