Cats and Dogs
On Cats and Dogs Ontario’s Andrew Collins delivers eleven original and often delightful bluegrass, classical, and jazz instrumentals working in small ensembles with a variety of talented friends. Collins second solo outing, following Little Widgets that earned him a Canadian Folk Music Award for Pushing the Boundaries in 2006, Cats and Dogs is Juno nominated for best instrumental release of 2012.
One of the most accomplished young string band artists, Collins plays with the old-time and bluegrass ensemble Foggy Hogtown Boys and the acclaimed modern string band, Creaking Tree String Quartet, which has earned four Juno nominations. Collins is now fronting his own trio with Mike Mezzatesta playing mandos, guitar, and fiddle and James Mceleney on upright bass.
Although Cats and Dogs offers musical breath – a vibraphone mandolin duet for example, Collins serves up three strong pieces clearly within the bluegrass spectrum. “Back Burner” is an aptly named 1:45 of drive featuring Chris Quinn’s banjo that deserves serious airplay. “Corkscrew Road” comes right out of the fiddle tune adapted to bluegrass tradition. Chris Coole plays the five-string on it and the medium tempo “David Blake.” “Dark Matter” with its mandolin Dobro interplay, the triple fiddle “Spider Cat,” “Farewell My Old Friend”and ‘High Falutin” each fit in with bluegrass music, even if outside a technical definition, and could be played at the most traditional festivals.
SyteSounds (http://www.sytesounds.com) AM
Onwards and Upwards
Pinecastle PRC 1182
Toner you will want to touch, this is the American debut on Pinecastle for one of music’s great stories. Niall Toner is an excellent, 68-years old American country and bluegrass composer and singer who happens to be Irish. His fourth CD, Onwards and Upwards is Toner’s first recorded in the USA. On Airplay Direct, a four year old promo download service for radio, Onwards and Upwards already stands as the fifteenth most downloaded release all time of any genre of music with more than 6000 and third for November 2012 when it appeared.
Onwards and Upwards contains only four indisputably bluegrass pieces. “The Pride and Joy of Shelby,” in honor of Earl; Scruggs, resembles a John Hartford song in lyrics, arrangement, and topic. “William Smith Monroe”, on the other hand, sounds original, dark, and slowly burning – a great song. Toner delivers a bluegrass arrangement of a terrific country novelty in “Million Dollar Bill”, a song I can easily imagine the late Dell Reeves or Roy Acuff adapting. “Burren Backstep” concludes the album with a kicking instrumental.
Playing mandolin and singing lead, Toner waxed Onwards and Upwards at Loud Studios in Nashville with Keith Sewell producing and playing guitar, electric guitar, piano, mandolin, and fiddle. The pickers including Rob Ickes on Dobro, bass great Viktor Krauss, and Ashby Frank on mandolin. One can hear the elevated level of musicianship and production quality compared to Toner’s quite substantial earlier recordings.
Niall Toner discovered the music of Bill Monroe as a small boy in Dublin and later drew inspiration from American old-time revivalists such as the Fuzzy Mountain and Highwoods String Bands. As a national radio host since the 1970s and writer, he became Ireland’s best known authority on American country music. Meanwhile, his vocation of song writing opened doors with even Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman recording one of his pieces, as have the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Barry & Holly Tashian, Albert Lee, and Special Consensus. Perhaps most heard of Toner’s compositions is “Nuns Island Reel”, featured in the video game smash hit, Grand Theft Auto IV. Another made it on to the new ABC TV series, “Nashville.” He formed the Niall Toner Band, with which he still tours, in County Carrow in 2001. Previously Toner belonged to The Lee Valley String Band in Cork, The Sackville String Band in Dublin, and Hank Halfhead & The Rambling Turkeys.
Toner wrote or co-wrote all eleven titles on Onwards and Upwards. Judge and Jury, the lead off track, is a classic American country song, driven by mandolin and Dobro with the memorable line, “Nothing concentrates the mind like a hanging they say.” “Bling” shows his ability to comment on current trends in the clever lyrics to a traditional honky-tonk song. “Tomorrow” is a duet that compares well to Gram Parsons and Emmylou, while the tremendous “Way of a Wanderer” occupies the lovely acoustic, but not exactly bluegrass space most often associated with the late Kate Wolf.
Toner is the real deal, producing an excellent album for his US debut that attempts to show his full range. That may be a bit too broad a task for any one CD. “Lock and Key”, a fine Americana song, has enough of a bluegrass flavor to fit in, but the Irish singer-songwriter piece, “Sweet Bunclody Girl”, seems too much of a stretch.
Pinecastle Records (2881 NC Hwy 106 East; Columbus, NC 28722; http://www.pinecastlemusic.com) AM
Mickey Galyean & Cullen’s Bridge
Rollin’ With Tradition
Galyean Family Records
Mickey Galyean & Cullen’s Bridge’s Rollin’ With Tradition can only be recommended to those who enjoy solid picking, no-nonsense arrangements of strong songs new and old, and good, unpretentious singing. This ensemble with a perfect blend of passion for classic bluegrass and experience consists of northwestern North Carolina and southwestern Virginia veterans who learned the music from their parents. This recording, more than anything else the members have done, celebrates that heritage. Those looking for acoustic covers of pop country hits will not find them. Instead, on “You Better Get Right” the band takes a Bill Monroe song, puts James King on lead vocal, and gives it a Stanley send up to great effect.
Guitarist and lead/tenor singer Mickey Galyean had enjoyed significant regional success with Rich In Tradition when his father, Cullen, passed away in 2010. Mickey then formed Cullen’s Bridge to dedicate himself to the spirit of Cullen’s music, taking fiddler Jordan Blevins and upright bass man Brad Hiatt with him from Rich in Tradition. Hiatt and underappreciated banjoman Rick Pardue, the newest member, lend the band three songwriters, a major plus for a classic bluegrass group.
Cullen, a banjo player and fiddler, joined James Lindsey and the Mountain Ramblers at age and played at various times with Hylo Brown, Ralph Stanley on guitar, and Charlie Monroe, in addition to 25 years off and on with Bobby Harrison and the Virginia Mountain Boys. “May I Sleep in Your Barn, Mister?,” from Charlie Poole, reprises one of the songs Harrison and Cullen recorded on five albums for Folkways. When Mickey demonstrated his precocious mandolin playing, his dad formed Cullen Galyean and the Bluegrassers.
From the two lead off songs written by Pardue, “Bell of the Ball” and “Blood on Mama’s Apron,” any listeners knows this is committed, passionate old school bluegrass. Cullen Galyean’s “Lonely River” then comes in sounding like a lost Stanley recording. And so it goes from one strong song to another, with just the up-to-date recording quality and occasional modern flourishes like the kick off to “Betty Jean’s Last Ride” and the closing harmonies on Hiatt’s “Knee Down,” giving away the 2013 vintage.
Original and classic, Mickey Galyean & Cullen’s Bridge’s Rollin’ With Tradition is an early 21st century version of the real deal, and a mighty fine version it is.
Galyean Family Records (8604 W. Pine St.; Low Gap, NC 27024) AM