Sometimes, life’s about little more than the relationship a man has with his guitar.
So it was with the acoustic quartet Springhill Band a few Friday nights ago on the lawn next to Thomas Sweet in Princeton, where the band plays frequently through the year and always draws in a crowd. This night the audience calmly watched and applauded after every song. Lead singer Carl Howard, throughout the set, tuned his guitar after virtually every tune, a sometimes quizzical, sometimes annoyed look on his face.
"I am not gentle with my guitars," Howard says on the phone a couple of days after the show. "The show we had done before this, I had broken a couple of strings, sort of from tapping about on it. A crack came through the side of it, and I had to send it off to get it repaired." Fortunately, he says, he went to Plan B, an Ovation model, and he was able to finish the show.
This being an outdoor venue, there were two types of people in the audience – the prudent and prepared, those who brought seats with them, and everyone else. One man, who might have been developmentally disabled, stood to the side about 10 feet in front of the group, swaying back and forth softly to the music, his eyes focused not on the quartet, but on a spot in the ground a couple of feet in front of them. Another fan, a little girl no older than six or seven with ribbons and flowers in her hair, spun round and round, absorbed in the music.
Carl Howard Stoltenberg, who uses his first two names professionally, said he has been playing professionally since 1980. He has performed and recorded with a band called Home Brew, a duet called Strungover, and a band called C. Jane Run. Born and raised in Edison, Howard didn’t play music seriously until he graduated from high school. "I was more interested in football, baseball, and basketball," he says. Genetics took over, though, and it was the Cat Stevens record "Tea for the Tillerman" that turned him on to music.
The Springhill Band has been performing together since 2000, says founder and leader Howard. When he’s not tuning his guitar and singing James Taylor tunes, he is the owner of Howard Design Group, a marketing and design firm in Princeton. Guitarist Michael O’Malley is director of engineering for Grocery Haulers in Avenel. The other Mike, Mike Castles, strums guitar and sings with Howard but is really a drummer at heart. Castles is director of systems and facilities at the Midland School in North Branch. Bassist Steve Hayden lives in Rocky Hill and is the only member of the band who plays music exclusively for a living.
At Thomas Sweet, the quartet ran through songs by the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, James Taylor, the Byrds, and other ’60s acts. Spring Hill has a sound that is both laid back and muscular, the result of two or three voices harmonizing together. Castles often took the lead voice throughout the night, with the other two vocalists supporting. O’Malley took the majority of the guitar solos, and his quick-picking style reflected the influence of bluegrass.
Howard is often quite complimentary of bassist Hayden, and on several occasions the Rocky Hill musician repaid the favor, as he provided active but rock-solid support and great counterpoint to Howard and O’Malley’s guitars.
Where did the band get its name? "I live on Spring Hill Road," Howard says. "We were looking for something that had that adult-contemporary feeling as well. Springhill is the kind of name you will find in bands that have a folk, acoustic-rock type of feel."
The Springhill Band, www.carlhoward.com. The band performs frequently at Thomas Sweet at 179 Nassau Street, www.thomassweet.com, and Failte Coffee Shop at 9 East Broad Street in Hopewell, www.failtecoffee.com. Check the Springhill Band website for upcoming dates.