The Well Known Strangers at the Sweetwater Music Hall, by Carolyn McCoy

The Well Known Strangers (photo: Carolyn McCoy)

Words by Carolyn McCoy

Bay Area country-soul band The Well Known Strangers started their journey with jam sessions between random musicians. Soon after it became a fun project for drummer Mick Hellman (yes, of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Hellman’s) and his daughter Olivia Hellman to showcase their songwriting and talents, as the family comes from a long legacy of musicians and songwriters, so it’s not surprising almost every Hellman has some sort of superb musical talent.

Things grew from there, the songs started to pour forth and the band gathered some of the Bay Area’s finest musicians to solidify the lineup. Along with Mick Hellman, there is vocalist Amber Morris who has belted lyrics for Souljah Family Band and Mark Karan. Bassist Joshua Zucker honed his chops with the Rowan Brothers and Poor Man’s Whiskey. Keyboard legend Austin de Lone has been a powerhouse in the music scene while tickling the keys with Elvis Costello and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Add to that the shredding power of guitarist David Noble (Poor Man’s Whiskey) on lead guitar and vocals as well as seasoned player Rob Anderson on rhythm guitar. Morris has taken over lead vocals for the band after Olivia Hellman moved to Nashville to pursue her music in that creative environment. All I can say is that a band with such a resume as this can only be musically stunning.

The Well Known Strangers recorded and are about to release their first album TMI. The songs on the album were recently debuted live at a free show at Mill Valley’s Sweetwater Music Hall, and it was a night filled with love, community, friends, family, and music. TMIis a collaborative effort in songwriting; the personal lyrics and the emotional highs and lows are real and true.

The band opened their first set with Noble’s song “Downstream” and then on to the Olivia Hellman penned title track “TMI”, which is a foot-stomping, bluesy song that speaks of knowing more information than is needed. Zucker’s song “Shine In” set a beautiful mood with Zucker’s 15-year-old daughter Isadora singing the lyrics with poise and grace. When the band broke out their funky version of “Jackson” the crowd got their boogie on. As Mick Hellman introduced his heartbreaking song “A Song For My Daughter”, written for Olivia after a recent family tragedy, tears within the band were apparent and it was a touching and poignant moment of deep emotion that we all shared.

The second set started with a line-dancing lesson (yes, it’s true) while the band played some Samba-based country-twang then it was on to the wild fun of “Wolf Den”, “Hell To Pay “and ending the night with “Not Fade Away”.

The Well Known Strangers are, in my opinion, something of an anomaly. It’s almost as if the legacy of the Hellman family has rooted the band in a tremendously deep tradition of making music so that what they create can only be magical, beautiful and real. There is no ego, no primping and preening under such a famous name, as it’s all about the music for the musicians. It’s all about the music.