It’s likely that there’s a crowd of people who think the idea of playing classical music on bluegrass instruments is flat-out absurd. Then again, music is always evolving, and the musicians pushing that evolution are usually the bravest. The Jake Schepps Quintet have chops to match their utter lack of fear. Wednesday night at Subculture, the five-string banjoist and his group – Ryan Drickey on violin, Jordan Tice on acoustic guitar, Andrew Small on bass and Matt Flinner on mandolin – played an ambitious program that encompassed so-called indie classical as well as Nordic fiddling and a healthy dose of traditional Appalachian music. At worst, they came across as a less fussy take on the Punch Brothers; at best, they took a lot of chances, danced on cinders and came away for the most part unsinged.
The centerpiece of the program was Flinner’s four-part Migration, a vivid, uneasy suite that, as the mandolinist explained to a pretty full house, sought to explore how bluegrass made its way from rural areas to larger population centers like Knoxville and Baltimore. Growing from a stern, terse, ruggedly minor-key gospel theme, it slowly brightened, although it ended with a lingering lack of resolve. Along the way, there were plenty of choice moments for soloists throughout the band, at one point Small pushing a waltz interlude with a practically new wave bassline. And it worked as well as it did, because, as Schepps put it, Flinner comes out of “the tradition” and never lost sight of it, no matter how minimalist, or avant garde, or for that matter, cinematic, the piece became.
Small revealed himself as an inspired country fiddler on an animatedly pulsing, biting, original bluegrass number on which the band was joined by a guest bassist who just happened to be in town. Tice alternated between big, expansive, jazzy chords and nimble flatpicking, particularly on an elaborate, dynamically-charged, waltzing original. Drickey led the group through a bracing number from the Swedish-Norwegian border which gave the quintet a launching pad for plenty of high-octane solos.
The night got off to a slow start with a couple of works by contemporary composers from outside the group. The first was gingerly blues-tinged, with the unfocused yet cautious feel of a student work, one that came across as trying to avoid failure rather than reaching for victory. The second rehashed Steve Reich and Windham Hill with the kind of preciousness that plagues so much of the indie classical demimonde. So when Schepps led the group from there into a mashup of a Bartok Mikrokosmos etude (#87, maybe?) and a high lonesome traditional number, it took awhile for the band to shake off the stiffness. One up-and-coming composer that the group ought to seek out is mandolinist Vivian Li, whose irrepressible, distinctive style is a richly intertwining blend of traditional bluegrass and cutting-edge contemporary composition for traditional folk instruments.
The Jake Schepps Quintet is currently on tour; their next concert is Feb 7 at 8 PM at the Theatre at 291 Gay St. in Washington, VA, tix are $20/$10 18-and-under.
American String Conspiracy’s new album Help the Poor has pretty much something for everybody, if you like Americana roots music. Whether they’re playing bluegrass, or oldschool soul music, or blues, or rock, it’s a smartly produced, rich feast of good guitar from frontman Gary Keenan and brilliant, eclectic lead player Shu Nakamura. Longtime standouts on the always fertile New York roots music scene, their colleagues on this album include Ernie Vega on electric bass, Suzanne Davenport on violin and cello, and Charlie Shaw switching between drums and upright bass.
Keenan’s laid-back baritone kicks off the opening, title track (a witty original bluegrass tune, not the old blues song) with his former mates in the haunting, excellent Nashville gothic band Bobtown – Jen McDearman, Karen Dahlstrom and Katherine Etzel – on backing vocals. “Whether by the will of god or your maxed-out credit card, that could be you someday,” Keenan offers, a friendly rebuttal to those NYC subway posters discouraging passengers from handing over a buck or two to those in need.
The first of the rock songs is Never Too Late. Like the others, it’s got tasty layers of electric guitar and a spiky solo from Nakamura, and a nice instrumental out, everybody – violin, guitars and Shaky Dave Pollack’s harmonica – firing on all cylinders. Freddy’s King, a tribute to the great Texas blues guitarist, is a spot-on shuffle instrumental, Davenport’s stark, memorable solo followed by an exuberant Freddy K. seance by Nakamura, who really nails the style, going all the way up the fretboard with some joyously slashing tremolo-picking.
My Guitar is a successful detour into countrypolitan, while Wrong Road is straight-up country and pretty hilarious: it’s amazing the things people will do after too much Jim Beam and V8. Keenan’s mandolin lights up Cherry Pie, a salute to the kind of food that really hits the spot after smoking a little weed. Crawl, a slow, bitter rock ballad, has the women from Bobtown again, an ominous violin-driven outro and a starkly chiming, simple guitar lead over lush, jangly Telecaster. They go into country gospel with Little Hymn, then back to the secular stuff for Leave It Alone, another wryly funny song, this one for the smokers: “There’s far too many ways to get stoned – just stick with reefer, it’s a whole lot cheaper.” N.O. Blues, a biting, funky minor-key number, bitterly references the Katrina disaster. “Singing Nearer My God to Thee on the banks of Ponchartrain,” Keenan intones, with Trailer Radio’s Shannon Brown guesting on a verse. They mix country, Beatles and Tex-Mex into Maybe, a duet between Keenan and Brown, and echo that vibe more quietly on the slowly swaying ballad that closes the album. It’s yet another excellent, cross-pollinated hybrid to sprout up in the greenhouse of the New York country scene. American String Conspiracy are at 68 Jay St. Bar on Jan 4.
To say that the Ebony Hillbillies played a fun set at Lincoln Center out of Doors last night might be a little bit obvious: by definition, bluegrass is fun. The Ebony Hillbillies’ version is a little more raw, and rustic, and when you think about it, authentic than a lot of bands playing that style of music. That’s because New York’s only black bluegrass band draws on a tradition that started before Emancipation, when part of a slave’s job was also to entertain the slavemasters. The band doesn’t belabor that point, but they also know their history: “There was a lot of music to learn,” violinist Henrique Prince explained to the crowd, elaborating on how slave musicians suddenly found themselves immersed in German or Irish music. One thing he didn’t say is that it’s more than a little ironic that bluegrass, commonly known as music played by caucasians, is performed entirely on instruments which originated in Africa.
Prince is the lead player in this band, with a briskly exuberant, fluid style, backed by the steady, clanking chords of clawhammer style banjo player Norris Bennett. Bassist Bill Salter (co-author of Grover Washington Jr.’s biggest hit, Just the Two of Us) slipped and slid gracefully, adding a little funk to the last song, a singalong/clapalong dance number called the Broke Leg Chicken. A rattling dance beat was delivered by Newman Taylor Baker, who played washboard with metal strikers on his fingers rather than with a metal brush, along with singer Gloria Thomas Gassaway, who added to her “reputation of working the audience [as the band’s website states]” while playing bones and then leading the crowd in a couple of singalongs. In that crowd was jazz piano legend Barry Harris, who interrupted Gassaway briefly during the funny blues tune Big Fat Daddy to remind that skinny guys (who happen to like big women) have also got it going on.
And the crowd ate it up. A woman with a video camera began trailing a little redheaded girl (who appeared to be her granddaughter) and then persisted in filming individual members of the band in close-up for almost the entire duration of the show. But they didn’t let it phase them. Everyone listened attentively as Prince sang a desperate but ultimately triumphant tune told from the point of view of a slave running off to Georgia to get away from a speculator who planned to auction him off; then they danced and swayed as Prince led the group through an Irish reel and more traditional, Appalachian-flavored stuff. At the end, after the Broke Leg Chicken, they wanted an encore, and the band would clearly have played it if the promoters had let them.
Here’s how it works in the blogosphere:we’ve got every PR agent on the planet hammering on our virtual door, pleading for some attention, but we like it best when we do a writeup on the Montreal Jazz Festival, a Quebecois band we’ve never heard of finds it, and then sends us a link to their stuff. And it turns out, they’re great! Canadian trio Swift Years’ most recent album goes back to 2005, and it’s a ton of fun. They’re sort of a north-of-the-border counterpart to Tribecastan. What guitarist Patrick Hutchinson, mandolinist Bob Cussen and bassist Suzanne Ungar have assembled here is an endlessly surprising, eclectic, genuinely amusing mix of cross-pollinated global sounds. They don’t have drums on the album, but it’s so tight that you don’t notice unless you listen closely.
Musically, the two real killer tracks here are The Exile and The Sand, both tricky, bitter, bracing, psychedelic Smyrnika rock instrumentals much in the style of Annabouboula, with layers of mandolin, guitar and soaring bass. The real classic here is Old Man Santo. See, Old Man Santo – think about that title for a minute – had a Farm, E-I-G-M-O. On the farm he had some pot, and some pigs, and some cows, really bloody pissed-off mad cows everywhere. We won’t spoil the plot because it’s as funny as it is unfortunately true.
A lot of the other tracks here add reggae to enhance the comedic factor. Beside Me’s protagonist doesn’t let his lack of money stop him from trying to pick up the girl: “After supper we could split a beer,” he tells her. He’s strictly oldschool: “I’m a rotary phone, I’m the last bus home…at home I drink out of glasses that I take home from bars, an old piggybank is my retirement plan, the clothes from my back are from the Sally Ann.” Rasta Puszta blends reggae, bluegrass and a happy Eastern European dance in there somewhere. And I Dreamed I Stopped Smoking is an amusing faux-country song, like a zeros update on what the Stones did with Dear Doctor.
They do a tongue-in-cheek speed-up and then do it all over again on the gypsy-flavored Hanko Hanko, and merge Quebecois with bluegrass on the equally sardonic Mon Vieux François. The title track, which sounds like the Boomtown Rats doing a creepy reggae tune, offers a view of the afterlife where everything is pretty much the same for these guys, everybody playing everyone else’s culture’s music in one big mashup, with a politically aware edge. In this particular world, right-wing politicians are reincarnated as single mothers. The album also includes a gorgeous, plaintive Belgian barroom waltz, a medley of the Eddystone Light and three jigs, and a lickety-split string band version of Ain’t Nobody’s Business. The whole thing is streaming at Swift Years’ bandcamp site – thanks for finding us, guys! Now it’s the rest of the world’s turn to discover this entertaining band.
As usual, all kinds of stuff in the pipeline and no time to do it. Who put that Bushwick barbecue on the calendar here? Fess up! In the meantime, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #610:
The Delmore Bros. – Classic Cuts 1933-41
Alton and Rabon Delmore really weren’t brothers, but that didn’t stop them from pretending they were. A lot of that kind of stuff happened in country music back in the old days. This massive 4-cd box set spans from the fire-and-brimstone country gospel of No Drunkard Can Enter There and Goodbye Booze - did anybody ever take these songs the least bit seriously? – to blues like Nashville Blues and I’ve Got the Railroad Blues, standards like Lay Down My Old Guitar and Blue Hills of Virginia along with creepy southern gothic tales like The Dying Truck Driver. Rustic, provocative evidence that there was an awful lot of cross-pollination between black and white musicians in those days. This one hasn’t showed up in the usual places, so in its place you might be interested in these 1933-35 radio tracks via Did You Remember El Diablo Tuntun.
Santa Cruz-based acoustic Americana hellraisers The Devil Makes Three play Maxwell’s tonight at nine. If you miss the Asylum Street Spankers, The Devil Makes Three are just as entertaining – and like the Spankers, they also happen to be an excellent band. The most recent album from guitarist Pete Bernhard, upright bassist Lucia Turino and guitarist/tenor banjo player Cooper McBean came out a couple of years ago. It’s called Do Wrong, Right, and it’s something that should have been on our radar at the time but wasn’t. It’s not just bluegrass with funny, surreal lyrics – the band also plays country swing, blues and Nashville gothic and does that stuff period-perfect as well.
The album is sort of a cross between the Spankers and Mojo Nixon’s duo stuff with Jello Biafra. The opening track, All Hail is a genuine classic: as they see it, the world is populated with clueless shoppers all wasted on crack and antidepressants: “It ain’t a drug, goddamn it, I give it to my only son,” says the guy on the way to the office thorazine party. The amusing intro of Poison Trees gives no indication of the ominous, apocalyptic shuffle that follows. The title track is a bouncy, violin-fueled bluegrass tune; they follow that with Gracefully Facedown, a woozy swing shuffle like early Dan Hicks. It’s a tribute to anyone who subscribes to the idea that “drinking bottom shelf bourbon seems to work all right til closing time.” For Good Again cynically mythologizes the band’s roots living in squalor, paying the rent in illegal drugs and writing songs that someday they’d get paid to play. “Everybody who’s anybody at one time lived in somebody’s hallway,” they assert, and they’re probably right.
Their Working Man’s Blues isn’t the Merle Haggard standard – it’s a haunting tobacco sharecropper’s lament with blues harp that sounds like it was recorded on another planet, a feeling echoed on a biting version of Statesboro Blues. The Johnson Family is an eerie, carnivalesque gypsy waltz; Helping Yourself puts a devious Curtis Eller-style spin on oldtime country gospel, spiced with an unexpectedly searing slide guitar solo. A spot-on early 50s style honkytonk tune that does double duty as raised middle finger to the boss, Cheap Reward unexpectedly quotes Elvis Costello; there’s also the careening slide guitar shuffle Aces and Twos and the unexpectedly epic Car Wreck. Good album – where the hell were we when this came out? You can get it at the band’s site or pick one up at the show.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #641:
The Stanley Bros. – All Time Greatest Hits
We’re gonna sneak another greatest-hits package in here because it’s representative, not necessarily because it’s any better than any other collection by these bluegrass legends – and their stuff has been packaged and repackaged a million times. Ralph and Carter Stanleys’ high lonesome voices, banjo and guitar, along with some topnotch 1940s and 50s Nashville players, rip through eleven songs, many of which have become standards. The real stunner here is Rank Strangers, one of the most vivid depictions of alienation ever set to music – its quietly resolute, suicidal atmosphere will give you chills. The one everybody knows is Man of Constant Sorrow; the rest of the gothic Americana includes Oh Death and White Dove. There’s also the prisoner’s lament Stone Walls and Steel Bars; the wry, amusing Don’t Cheat in Our Home Town; the English dance Little Maggie; the lickety-split Little Birdie, and for country gospel fans, there’s Beautiful Star of Bethlehem. Mysteriously, this one isn’t very easy to find, so in lieu of this particular item you might want to check out something just as interesting, the complete Rich-R-Tone 78s collection, which is decent although the journey from 78 to digital was somewhat less than successful.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #645:
Flatt & Scruggs – 20 Greatest Hits
Hope it’s ok with you if we go to the well two days in a row for some more Americana roots. Bluegrass guitar legend Lester Flatt first joined forces with iconic, paradigm-shifting banjo virtuoso Earl Scruggs in the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1946. There’s such a glut of their stuff floating around that we suggest this out-of-print collection (if you can find it) as a solid representation of their fast fingers at work. The one that everybody knows is Foggy Mountain Breakdown; other standards here include Sunny Side of the Mountain and Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms. Yonder Stands Little Maggie is actually an English folk song; Salty Dog Blues is a dirty song, while country gospel is represented by Preachin’ Prayin’ Singin’. There’s also a drinking song – Drink That Mash And Talk That Trash – sad ballads – We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart and Farewell Blues – the chain gang song Doin’ My Time, the wry I’m Gonna Sleep with One Eye Open, the nostalgic My Cabin in Caroline, a couple of instrumentals, a blistering bluegrass version of Dill Pickle Rag and a pointless Carter Family cover. Mysteriously hard to find in the usual places: as an alternative, check out two delicious discs worth of 1950s radio recordings with the Foggy Mountain Boys via scratchyattic.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #687:
Merle Travis – Guitar Rags and a Too Fast Past
Hope it’s ok with you if we stick with great guitar for a second day in a row. A titan of Americana roots music, Merle Travis was one of the great country guitarists whose signature picking style has influenced most C&W players ever since. As imaginative at western swing as he was at bluegrass, he was a star from the mid-40s when he was doing anti-Nazi comedy songs under an assumed name, to the 60s. This massive 5-cd set, first issued on vinyl in the mid-70s in Europe, contains 145 tracks in all and includes most of his iconic songs: the bitter coal miners’ antems Sixteen Tons and Dark as a Dungeon, along with more lighthearted stuff from folk songs like John Henry and Nine Pound Hammer, to Hoagy Carmichael’s Lazy River, Bob Wills’ Steel Guitar Rag, and novelty numbers like Divorce Me C.O.D. CD #5 is mostly a waste, but the whole thing still has more than ten dozen cool songs. Essential stuff for guitar players and country music fans. Here’s a random torrent via lokaldensayo. Also worth checking out: Travis’s recently unearthed 1966 concert up at Wolfgang’s Vault.