Bluegrass Unlimited Reviews 2010

Bluegrass Unlimited Reviews Published During 2010

By Art Menius

  1. John Hartford Stringband
  2. Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
  3. The High 48’s
  4. Canucky Bluegrass Boys
  5. Cana Ramblers

John Hartford Stringband
Memories of John
Red Clay Records

Although John Hartford toured primarily as a solo song and dance man for much of his career, his later years featured the extraordinary support of the John Hartford Stringband. A decade after the great man’s passing, Chris Sharp reassembled bandmates Bob Carlin, Mike Compton, Mark Schatz, and Mike Compton to pay tribute to a unique American musical treasure who looked straight down the barrel of pop music and TV success and decided that he preferred Flatt & Scruggs and Ed Haley. That he loved both equally allowed him to navigate seamlessly between old-time and bluegrass.

Memories of John captures that fluid recognition that it is all string band music whether the bluegrass of “Love Gone Cold” or the Ohio valley fiddle music of the kick-off track, “Three Forks of Sandy.” The material delights of this album come from three basic areas. The first consists of two demos that John recorded more than 40 years ago. Mark and Eileen Schatz worked “You Don’t Notice Me Ignoring You” into a finished track, while the closing “Fade Out” appears just as Hartford left it.

The second and perhaps most intriguing set consists of previously unreleased Hartford compositions, most intended for a Stringband project that did not live to record. All three were well worth the wait, especially the delightful “Madison, Tennessee” and live favorite “Homer the Roamer.”

The remaining ten selections include a Schatz’ loving tribute poem “For John,” two Ed Haley tunes, the classic “Lorena” sung by Tim O’Brien as requested by fans online, and renditions of six Hartford originals. Most of the latter feature John’s friends joining the Stringband. O’Brien sings and Alison Brown plays John’s banjo on version of “M.I.S.I.P.” that stays close to the original. Alan O’Bryant brings his unmistakable voice to “Delta Queen Waltz,” the same song he sang at the funeral. Béla Fleck delivers a captivating personal interpretation of John’s banjo style to “The Girl I Left Behind Me.”

And if that’s not enough, the album and several tracks start with John’s instructions to the band form rehearsal tapes. And thus the John Hartford String Band has succeeded in creating in just one package 1) an excellent new John Hartford album, 2) a wonderful tribute to John and his music, and 3) a real world demonstration that bluegrass and old-time don’t have to be an either-or proposition.

(Red Clay Records under license to Compass Records, 916 19th Ave South; Nashville, TN 37212; www.compassrecords.com) AM

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Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
Fiddlemon Music 13003

Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen have certainly ranked among the “buzz” bluegrass bands of 2010. Fittingly, their eponymous CD presents a razor sharp, confident quartet influenced by a broad range of the last four decades of bluegrass musical development.

Veteran Mike Mumford’s crackling banjo draws the listener in from the kick off of the driving lead track, “Driftin’ Apart,” one of six songs that Solivan composed or co-wrote. Mike’s banjo work quickly meets its counterpoint in some killer resophonic guitar playing by Blue Highway’s Rob Ickes, one of four special guests. “Driftin’ Apart” defines one of Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen’s main tropes, the fast modern bluegrass song. This approach repeats on several of the recording’s top tracks including Ginger Boatwright’s “Runaway Ramp,” and Mumford’s instrumental, “Line Drive,” and another of Frank’s songs, “Tarred and Feathered,” with John Cowan on tenor.

Mandolinist and lead singer Solivan began winning fiddle contests and playing with Doug Dillard and Ginger while also playing first chair violin with the University of Alaska Symphony. The US Navy Band Country Current brought him east and allowed him to become well enough known now to front his own unit. The band also includes Stephan Custodi on standup bass and guitarist Lincoln Meyers. Solivan’s songwriting often proves standout. He writes songs that clearly are bluegrass, yet they deal with contemporary themes.

The second cut on the album, John Stewart’s “July You’re A Woman,” jumps back in time to the hippiegrass of forty years ago, while Solivan’s “Together We’ll Fly” reminds me of some of the best west coast bluegrass of the 1980s and 1990s. Another fine song from Frank, “Left Out in the Cold,” is a ripped from the headlines ballad of the kind Blue Highway does so well. “Paul & Silas” from the Stanleys concludes the album with a rich a capella quartet.

Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen announce their arrival with authority. Their debut delivers lots of strong original material and outstanding variety without every falling into musical dilettantism.

Fiddlemon Music c/o Good Stuff PR (221 Prospect Ave., Franklin, TN 37064, www.dirtykitchenband.com) AM

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The High 48s
Up North
The High 48s

Judging from the contents of Up North, their third compact disc, The High 48s won the RockyGrass band competition in 2008 with a combination of confident picking and lots of original songs, especially for a somewhat traditional sounding band. Their energy and atavistic attire reminds one of the Johnson Mountain Boys thirty years ago. Another three decades of removal from bluegrass’ early days, however, means that The High 48s have a more progressive neo-trad sound than the JMB. The 75% original material also distinguishes the Minnesota quintet.

Carl Sauceman, who bemoaned the limited original material from the bluegrass bands of the 1980s, would love the High 48s output of eight new songs. The group. Fiddler Eric Christopher provides two tunes and banjo player Anthony Ihrig, formerly of Free Range Picking, composed “Darrington” in tribute the bluegrass hometown of the northwest. The tune features guests Mike Compton and Randy Kohrs whose bubbly breaks resolve the tension between Ihrig modern take on his tune and Christopher’s traditional response. Compton also plays on Christoper’s “Little Odessa.” Bassman Rich Casey sing and Johnson’s brother Chad on mandolin complete the High 48s.

All three covers receive excellent and original treatments. They include a slower tempo than Del McCoury version “I’ve Endured,” the Olla Belle Reed song, and “Paul and Silas” from the Stanleys, along with “Dirty Old Town,” from “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” composer Ewan McColl. Guitarist Derek Johnson, previously of alt-country act Best Fight Story, offers five solid and professional compositions. “Easy to Get Lost,” “The Cliffs of Red Wing,” and especially the fine uptempo bluegrass song “Shoes,” are quite good, if not extraordinarily original songs. The other pair are limited from a bit too much DNA still remaining audible from songs that influenced them. You can still hear melodic traces of “Two Highways” in the family tree of the title track and Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me” in “Sad Lonesome Eyes.”

Christopher, who also fiddles with the James King Band, proves clearly the instrumental star of a quite tight and expressive band. Ihrig provides a worthy counterpart on the five above a reliable rhythm section.

It is always refreshing to hear a bluegrass band whose vocals aren’t exclusively trios and quartets. The High 48s may go too far the other way. Derek Johnson is a good lead singer, but they take too little advantage of the sibling duet Johnson or having four vocalists. “Paul & Silas” is a happy exception and a model especially for building a distinctive vocal sound on the duet. The High 48s have areas for improvement but certainly should be playing much more outside of Minnesota and Wisconsin than they are.

(www.thehigh48s.com) AM

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Canucky Bluegrass Boys
Standin’ Up
Canucky Bluegrass Boys

The Canucky Bluegrass Boys are a high energy band from western Ontario strongly influenced by contemporary southern bluegrass. Formerly known as Grassbackwardz, the five person Anglo-First Nations ensemble has evolved from a jam session band into a recording unit that successfully projects the joy they find in playing bluegrass together. Fiddler Don Reed, who has worked with Buck Owens and Dwight Yaokum, and R.J. Nelson, formerly of Sudbury’s Lilly Creek, on banjo have lifted the three original members to a new level of confidence and competence.

Standin’ Up appropriately offers a wide range of songs from “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” first recorded by African-American string band the Mississippi Sheiks all the way to the Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” arguably the “Rocky Top” of Americana music. The Canucky Bluegrass Boys cover the Seldom Scene version of “I Know You Rider” as if it were their own, while proving knowledgeable enough to unearth Lynwood Lunsford’s “Molly Rose” and “Leavin’,” an early hit for James King. Upright bass player Matt Naveau provides the long original composition, “Standin’ Up.”

Standin’ Up offers ample evidence as to why the Canucky Bluegrass Boys captured both “Most Promising Group” and “Best Vocal Group” at the 2009 Central Canadian Bluegrass Music Awards. While other bands may provide greater depth and subtly, few ensembles strike a better balance between professional skills and communicating the simple joy of playing music together than do the Canucky Bluegrass Boys.

(www.canuckybluegrass.com) AM

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The Cana Ramblers
No Expectations
Cana Mania Records CR-09

The Cana Ramblers, from the music rich North Carolina – Virginia border area, feature songwriting lawyer Philip Jones, his three talented kids ages 17 to 23, and Rick Allred, best known as a member of the Country Gentlemen and Summer Wages during the late 1970s and early 1980s. No Expectations, their first album in five years, demonstrates a mature, diverse unit that has packaged the best of 1970s style bluegrass for the 21st Century.

The 1970s were when today’s bluegrass world started to take shape as the bluegrass festivals, publications, and labels that emerged during the 1960s matured. The Woodstock influenced festivals of 1970s morphed into the family style bluegrass festivals of today. Iconic bands like the Seldom Scene, JD Crowe & the New South, Johnson Mountain Boys, New Grass Revival, Hot Rize, and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver emerged while the stars of the first generation entered their fifties.

The Cana Ramblers capture the experimental variety of that era on No Expectations. Just look at the title track – a cover of the New Deal String Band’s cover of a Rolling Stones song, but with an innovation in the form of a female lead vocal from Ashley Jones . Turning pop music into bluegrass was a sign of those times just as much as revisiting the classics of bluegrass and country. From the later we get “Will You Be Loving Another Man,” “California Cottonfields,” and “She Thinks I Still Care.” Laurie Leigh Jones’ operatic powerhouse of a voice drives “Luxury Liner,” a perfect example of the borrowing from contemporary music that was happening during the 1970s.

That time also brought a rebirth of bluegrass songwriting as folks began to self-identify as bluegrass songwriters. Philip, who handles rhythm guitar, began writing songs then and composed five of the 16 pieces comprising No Expectations. His work ranges from a silly love song about materialism in “Things, Things, Things” to the emotionally charged “The Farm.” Laura Leigh provided the lead off cut, “Heartaches and Teardrops,” which the Cana Ramblers accurately describe as a “girl power bluegrass song,” while lead guitarist Will Jones composed “Cash’s Last Ride” when only 12 after playing on the great man’s last show at the Carter Fold.

The Cana Ramblers, on No Expectations, deliver a full package of youth and experience, strong picking, well arranged harmonies, diverse material new and familiar, and four lead singers. Throughout the album, the Cana Ramblers provide both the youthful exuberance and the certain lightness of being that marked the 1970s all reinterpreted and updated for today.

(Cana Mania Records; 1046 Brushy Fork Rd; Cana, VA 24317; www.canaramblers.com) AM

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