Fierce songs in fine tradition: Lula Wiles to play Bar Harbor



BAR HARBOR — The women who make up the band Lula Wiles, set to play at the Criterion June 22 at 8 p.m., are very familiar with the political divide between what’s sometimes called “the two Maines.”

Some parts of the state, especially the Portland area, have much in common with liberal, cosmopolitan Boston. The inland rural areas to the north and west, including Farmington where band members Eleanor Buckland and Mali Obomsawin grew up, are more traditional and conservative.

Both Maines are struggling with the opioid epidemic, but rural areas have added challenges with fewer resources, jobs and options.

Lula Wiles is, from left, Isa Burke, Mali Obomsawin and Eleanor Buckland. They are set to play at the Criterion June 22. PHOTO COURTESY OF LULA WILES

The band — Buckland, Obomsawin and Isa Burke, who grew up in South Berwick but also spent a lot of time in rural Waldo County where her parents teach at Maine Fiddle Camp — tackle all of this head-on in their sophomore record, “What Will We Do,” released earlier this year on Smithsonian Folkways.

All three are incisive songwriters and beautiful singers — the killer vocal harmonies alone are well worth the price of admission. Between them, they also play fiddle, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, standup bass and banjo.

The trio met as youngsters at Maine Fiddle Camp when they were teenagers, bonding over late nights with songs and fiddle tunes around the campfire. They became a band years later when they were all students at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

That experience of being steeped in traditional folk music, sharpening their skills and their instincts with rigorous classical training and also being influenced by indie rock, R&B and more all add up to an impressive, infectious sound and a wonderful live show.

One song, “Hometown,” is described in the liner notes as “a love song to rural Maine.” It’s a story, the band writes “of recognizing brutal hardships and honoring those who endure them as we collectively and compassionately figure out why things are the way they are.”

“We’re passing judgment on the system that produces these conditions and not on the people that fall victim to it,” Buckland said in an interview with music magazine No Depression.

But note, the record is not called “Here’s What We Think Should Be Done.”

The searching storytelling is instead an invitation, they hope, to discussion and conversation, Buckland told the Islander.

“We felt like that question, ‘What Will We Do?’ summed up a lot of what we were asking ourselves as we were writing these songs,” she said. For themselves, the answer they’ve settled on is to “keep making music and trying to connect with people on a deep level, to cultivate understanding with people from different walks of life.”

Joining the trio on this tour is drummer and Berklee classmate Sean Trischka, who also played on the record. Trischka and Dan Cardinal, co-producer and engineer, were “integral to the collaboration,” Buckland said.

“It’s great to have [Trischka] in the band, after touring for so long as a trio,” she said. “It still feels so exciting for us, since it has only been happening in the last four months. That does translate on stage.”

Lula Wiles’ love songs, heartbreak songs and torch songs dive deep into heartache and also turn it on its head. There’s a great cover of “The Pain of Loving You” as such by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. Originals include Burke’s ballad “Independence Day” about “realizing you’re on your own in the wake of a heartbreak” and the rollicking two-step “Nashville, Man” by Burke and Obomsawin about, as Burke said in a February show, “emotionally irresponsible musicians.”

They’ll also play some favorites from their 2016 self-titled album, and some new songs.

“Folks choose to come to a concert,” Buckland said, “and by doing so, they’re … asking us to open our hearts to them and choosing to open their hearts to the music and maybe to new experiences.

“In places where we can sense, oh maybe there are conservative folks in the audience, maybe this choice to be in a room and opening yourself to another person’s experience, that’s going to breed a camaraderie. It’s an act of empathy to even be in the room with us.”

Tickets for the Criterion show range from $18 to $25. Visit criteriontheatre.org.

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