“The Fool” was written by Lee Hazlewood (though credited to his nom de spouse, Naomi Ford, and with a guitar riff borrowed from Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’“), and first waxed by Sanford Clark in 1956. Since then, the song’s been recorded dozens of times across a surprising range of genres. Here, for your irritainment*, are twenty-eight different recordings, clocking it at over ninety-six oddly hypnotic minutes.
The Howlin’ Brothers continue to combine a formidable collection of Americana sounds, including country, folk, blues, bluegrass, gospel and Dixieland, with the moxie of street performance. Their latest works even harder to stop passerby in their tracks with banjo country, harmonica-and-slide blues, weeping fiddle tunes, steel-guitar waltzes, Cajun dance numbers and vocals that invite the audience to sing along. Their playing exhibits the best of two worlds, combining the energy of extemporaneous expression with the finesse of experience. It’s as if they captured the essence of a Saturday night stage and an impromptu Tuesday-afternoon street corner in a studio recording. The track list also plays to the feel of a live set, with carefree numbers, rough plaints and sad tales taking listeners on a roller coaster of emotions. One can easily imagine this entire disc played on stage as-is, returning dancers from the whirl of “Monroe” to shed a few dizzy tears to the heartbroken “World Spinning Round.” The trio’s range is impressive, including upbeat bluegrass, spare folk and steel honky-tonk in a truly coherent mix; it’s like listening to a day of Strictly Hardly Bluegrass in one band; even the reggae “Love” somehow fits easily into their set. Most impressively, the group instills new energy into classic roots forms, keeping this from turning into a nostalgia fest or even an exercise in progressive twists; it’s just inspiring and fun. A lot of fun. [Â©2014 Hyperbolium]
It’s one thing to be a world class musician, but applying that talent to spontaneous performance in a studio setting is something else entirely. For their second formal collaboration, Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott perform rather than produce – the recordings catch them in the act of making music, rather than making a record. Sitting face-to-face for most of these tracks, they pick and sing for one another rather than for the microphones, and the results contain the essence of duet music. There’s an interplay between their instruments and voices, provocations made and instantly answered, that are often still-born or sterilized by the process of recording. But such is the nature of their collaboration, which began with 2000’s Real Time and which grew in countless career intersections.
Last year’s We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This, showed how quickly and easily the duo could come together in live performance, and how the element of surprise could spur great stage performances. Their latest, built from new solo material, a co-write and a few covers, shows how empathetic each is to the other’s instrumental and vocal traits. There are few others who Â could pull together such performances this nuanced and riveting in just three days. O’Brien and Scott sound as if they’re singing well-worn folk songs they’d been touring for years, when in fact the original material is new. They conjure George Jones’ spirit with their harmony runs on the possum’s sad-sack “Just One More Time” and are joined by John Prine for his own “Paradise.” Waiting thirteen years is one way to avoid the sophomore jinx; hopefully these two will get to junior year a bit more quickly. [Â©2013 Hyperbolium]
This Boston-based quintet sports a traditional string band lineup of guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and bass, and though that adds up to the acoustics of a bluegrass band, their original material is something distinct from that of the typical festival players. The differences likely stem from the varied background of the band members: fiddler Mike Barnett, bassist Sam Grisman (son of mandolinist David) and mandolinist Dominick Leslie had traditional childhood immersions in acoustic music, while banjoist Greg Liszt had a dual life as a picker (with the Crooked Still) and a scientist (including a Ph.D. in molecular biology from MIT), and guitarist Stash Wyslouch followed a route through rock and heavy metal before settling into country and bluegrass.
The band’s moved closer to traditional song structures over their five years and three records, but the remnants of earlier experiments are still to be heard. Their harmonies, for example, range from traditional high-low bluegrass singing to unison passages they’ve characterized as “gang vocals.” There’s also a helping of country that suggests harmony acts like Alabama and the Statler Brothers. There’s a hopefulness to their tone, even when singing lyrics of failed love, buoyed by rolling banjo, sawed fiddle and fluttering lines of mandolin. The tempos leave little time for dwelling on failure; “Bored of the Raging” emerges from a crawl to a run, and “A Faded Star” waves off inevitability in favor of the changeable present moment.
In contrast, the passing years of “Now is Not the Time” and stagnant living of “Working” seem to spark genuine worries (though the latter does manage a rare use of the word “wankfest” in a song lyric). The band’s hopefulness is also interrupted by the dichotomies of “Beautiful’s the Body” and “It’ll End Too Soon,” each serving up conflicting impulses and no clear answers. Greg Liszt’s songwriting straddles portrait and poetry, drawing characters and situations that layer abstraction on concrete foundations. His optimistic joys and thoughtful concerns give the album a believable outline whose emotional details are inked in by the band’s talented and soulful musicianship. [Â©2013 Hyperbolium]
This double-album tribute to the music of CSN&Y was released in 2012 as a fundraiser for the Equestrian Therapy Co-Op in Simi Valley, CA. The twenty-seven artists range from high-profile names (Judy Collins, Elliott Murphy) to cult favorites (Steve Wynn, The Coal Porters, Willie Nile, Cindy Lee Berryhill) and a number of newer and less globally-famous acts, including Stephen Stills’ daughter, Jennifer. Each takes a personal approach to a song from the various catalogs associated with CSN&Y, together, solo, and in earlier group incarnations, such as Sugarcane Jane’s banjo-centered revamp of Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird.” The interpretations range widely, including blues, country, alt-rock, folk, bluegrass, soul and more. A few, such as Sonny Mone’s cover of Neil Young’s “Down by the River” actually incarnate the vocal mix of CSN&Y, and Venice’s lush harmonies on “After the Gold Rush” are quite fetching. As well-known as are CSN&Y’s recordings, their songs have held up to reinterpretation over the years, and provide a deep well from which these artists draw. [Â©2013 Hyperbolium]
Clinton Gregory had a run of Top-100 country hits in the early ’90s, but both his releases and commercial success became scarce by mid-decade. He returned last year with Too Much Ain’t Enough, his first album in more than a decade, and doubles down with this return to his bluegrass roots. Gregory started out as a fiddler, playing festivals as a child and breaking into Nashville as a session musician. His return from country crooning to tightly harmonized bluegrass is a superb spin, fueled by an obvious love of these songs and sounds. The band’s five-piece line-up reanimates a repertoire that leans almost entirely on the traditional canon. Rather than trying to stretch the genre, Gregory plugs into the formula’s original energies, making room for instrumentals, multipart harmonies and his moving lead vocals. This is no small task in a genre whose tight constrictions can leave its music sounding moribund. Gregory’s journey home plugs into a musical place that was engrained rather than learned, and the result is terrifically compelling. [Â©2013 Hyperbolium]
This three piece (Ben Plasse – upright bass and banjo; Ian Craft – fiddle and banjo; Jared Green – guitar and harmonica; all three on vocals) performs its mountain bluegrass, Dixieland and late-night blues with a busker’s verve. Plasse’s bass holds down the rhythmic core on many numbers, but gives way to light drumming (courtesy of Gregg Stacki) for a few, such as the second-line shuffle, “Gone.” Brass and clarinet add a flashy touch to “Delta Queen,” but it’s the group’s unabashed, live-wire energy that draws your ear. The trio’s fifth album mixes a wide variety of originals, including fiddle tunes, family-styled harmonies and driving banjo folk, Â with covers of John Hartford’s “Julia Belle Swain” and Otis “Big Smokey” Smothers’ raucous “My Dog Can’t Bark.” The strings are augmented by touches of whistling, kazoo, wordless vocalizations, and a few guests – including Warren Haynes on slide guitar. These live-in-the-studio sessions capture the spontaneity of group performance and the pull of a street corner show. [Â©2013 Hyperbolium]
The Coal Porters are often billed as an alt.bluegrass band, and while thereâ€™s bluegrass to be heard in their harmonies and acoustic picking, their loose-jointed joy rings more of the 1960s folk revival than of modern-day bluegrass festivals. Band leader Sid Griffin has been widely quoted as wanting to make acoustic bluegrass-styled music lyrically relevant to current audiences, but the albumâ€™s themes â€“ simple joys, forsaken relationships, biblically-inspired stories and historically rooted dramas â€“ are more timeless than contemporary. The albumâ€™s two covers â€“ a fiddle and harmonica take on David Bowieâ€™s â€œHeroesâ€ and a harmony-laden version of the Rolling Stonesâ€™ â€œPaint it Blackâ€ â€“ may be modern in sentiment, but theyâ€™re nostalgic in form. The Portersâ€™ music is influenced both by the progressive folk of Griffinâ€™s adopted England and the bluegrass of his native Kentucky; which makes sense, since both bluegrass and blue grass (that is, poa pratensis) have roots in Scotland, Ireland and England. The enhanced CD edition of this release includes a short video documentary about the band, providing a glimpse of Griffin as a bandleader, and the band as an ever-evolving outlet for his musical interests. [Â©2012 Hyperbolium]
After twenty-five years together, thereâ€™s nothing tremendously surprising about this quintetâ€™s tenth album, but the ease with which they craft country, soul, swing and bluegrass remains terrifically engaging. Recorded in Nashville with Cowboy Jack Clement in the producerâ€™s chair, thereâ€™s plenty of tight harmonizing, some rapid finger work and guest appearances by Marty Stuart, Emmylou Harris and John Prine. The song list combines five originals with eight covers, including finely selected songs from Kris Kristofferson, Katy Moffatt & Tom Russell, Butch Hancock, Levon Helm and Bobby & Shirley Womack. The latterâ€™s â€œItâ€™s All Over Now,â€ originally recorded by its author as funky, New Orleans-tinged R&B, and famously covered by the Rolling Stones, is winningly arranged here with the twang and harmony of Old Crow Medicine Show. Butch Hancockâ€™s â€œIf You Were a Bluebirdâ€ and John Prineâ€™s scornful â€œUnwed Fathersâ€ (the latter with Harris adding her vocal to Dan Wheetmanâ€™s) are especially moving, and the original â€œSouth for a Changeâ€ offers western swing piano, guitar, steel and fiddle. Like the Band and NRBQ, Marleyâ€™s Ghost is an eclectic outfit with deep country roots; the tether gives their catalog continuity and the variety keeps their albums fresh. [Â©2012 hyperbolium dot com]
Having hooked up with Steve Martin in 2009, this quintet gained mainstream attention that mirrored the renown theyâ€™d built in bluegrass circles over the previous decade. After backing Martin for a tour of his 2009 album, The Crow, and collaborating for last yearâ€™s Rare Bird Alert, they now return to their own work and original material. The only cover in this lot is Tim Hardinâ€™s â€œReputation,â€ sung at a tempo that inches towards the Associationâ€™s 1967 blues-rock cover and with harmonies that expand upon the Byrdsâ€™ 1968 version. The original tunes are all rooted in bluegrass instrumentation, but interweave elements of newgrass, country and gospel. The songs include stories of earnest courting, lost souls, tenuous relationships and natural pleasures. The bandâ€™s harmonies are strong, perhaps even a tad in your face in spots, and contrast with playing thatâ€™s tight and enthusiastic, but relaxed and delicate enough to have soul. The latter is the sort of thing that can escape players with bluegrass-quality chops, and though you get to hear the instrumentalists solo, they do so without having the band drop into the background. The albumâ€™s one instrumental, â€œKnob Creek,â€ is fittingly, an ensemble piece. The Rangers are a talented band with taste, chops and enough invention to keep their music growing. [Â©2012 hyperbolium dot com]