Bluegrass, roots bands thrive outside mainstream
Bluegrass’ moment seems to have come and gone. The most recent Grammy Awards didn’t put any bluegrass-related CD in the spotlight, à la “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” so many years ago. (Three, to be exact.) There was no moment like Ralph Stanley singing “O Death” from the midst of the crowd. No hot, young bluegrass group has come close to capturing mainstream attention as Nickel Creek did in the early 2000s. In fact, Nickel Creek themselves are in a bit of a lull: The group hasn’t released an album since 2002’s “This Side,” and solo projects released in the interim – mandolinist Chris Thile’s “Deceiver,” guitarist Sean Watkins’ “26 Miles” and “Mutual Admiration Society,” a collaboration with Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips – have been unimpressive. (Nickel Creek is reported to be in the studio working on their next record.) At the Grammys, the best bluegrass album went to Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder – not exactly an exciting new voice – for the decent “Brand New Strings.” The only other bluegrass noise at the Grammys was the best country instrumental performance win for “Earl’s Breakdown,” by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band featuring Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements and Jerry Douglas.No matter. Bluegrass and its acoustic cousins have existed largely outside the spotlight with no adverse developmental effects. This year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival (June 16-19) expands its tent to include the duo of Mike Gordon & Leo Kottke and the jazz string trio Stanley Clarke, Béla Fleck & Jean-Luc Ponty in addition to the usual pickers. Here in Aspen, the Wheeler Opera House’s Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music (March 16-19) features a whole new slate of acts: supergroups Psychograss and Blue Highway; Vishten, from eastern Canada; and upstate New York roots-rock band Donna the Buffalo.Following are reviews of some recent CDs from the wide acoustic world.Vishten, “Vishten”produced by Vishten and Donnie ChapmanMany is the time in my days as music journalist that musicians have told me that music is a universal language, bridging cultures and differences.On the eponymous debut by Vishten, a quartet from eastern Canada, that view seems especially true. Vishten sings entirely in French, a result of their Acadian culture. Other than the lyrics, the music – from the instruments (fiddle, accordion, guitar and bodhran, a frame drum) to the bouncing rhythms to the pretty singing – could come straight from the Celtic tradition.
On the opening “Mariez-moi,” singing twins Emmanuelle and Pastelle LeBlanc have a slight influence from the French chanson tradition. But on instrumentals like “La Turque Bleue,” and the guitar ballad “Sur la Chapelle de Vériné,” Vishten could well be taken for a contemporary Celtic roots band. For fans of neo-traditional Irish music, there should be little lost in translation here.Vishten makes its Aspen debut in the Beyond Bluegrass Festival on March 17, Saint Paddy’s Day. Don’t tell anyone they’re not an Irish band.Solas, “Waiting for an Echo”(Shanachie)For nearly a decade, the Irish-American quintet Solas has been defining contemporary, tradition-based Irish pop music. On their seventh album, “Waiting for an Echo,” Solas manages as always to make music that is easy to digest, yet conveys a sense of adventure and hipness.Credit it to the band’s many components. Lead singer Deirdre Scanlan voice is shimmering with Irish clarity on a cover of Richard Shindell’s folky “On a Sea of Fleur de Lis.” On “Lowground,” the vocal by Eamon McElholm is something else entirely, ringing with gritty alt-country jaggedness. The pop piano ballad “Erin” offers yet another side, with Seamus Egan taking lead vocals. The dark and desperate song – “Don’t sleep please/I had another one of those dreams” – is by poet Antje Duvekot, who has contributed frequently to Solas’ repertoire.When the band does a set of instrumental jigs and reels, it doesn’t act as if treading on sacred ground, but rips into them. On the opening medley of “The Hanover Reel/John James Reel/The Copperplate,” Winifred Horan’s fiddle crackles with energy over a furiously strummed guitar.
Free Peoples, “It Is What It Is”On its second album, “It Is What It Is,” California acoustic quartet Free Peoples scours the past to come up with a fresh style. The sound – fortified here by guest musicians on fiddle, dobro and banjo – starts with a base of uptempo swing-jazz rhythms and chord progressions, with hints of bluegrass, country and folk layered on. There is an overriding essence of gentleness here: solos are played softly, with a strong emphasis on group interplay. The vocals are always hushed, and they are often distinguished, as on “444 (# of the angels).” The lyrics generally speak in affirmative tones, a tone set on the opening “One World in Harmony.” Even on the racing country-bluegrass tune “Grass Ain’t Greener,” Free Peoples maintains its fundamental easygoing temper.Larry Sparks, “40”produced by Don Rigsby (Rebel Records)You don’t need to see the 1964 photo of Larry Sparks performing with the Stanley Brothers, or to know that the title “40” represents how many years since the singer-guitarist released his first album to know Sparks has been in the game awhile. In Spark’s relaxed, old-school delivery is the voice of experience.And how else to explain the all-star cast such as appears on “40” if not for Sparks’ standing as a bluegrass elder statesmen? On a string of songs whose very titles speak of bluegrass’ rural roots – “Georgia Peaches,” “City Folk Call Us Poor,” “John Deere Tractor” – Sparks is joined by the likes of Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Rhonda Vincent and the duo of Ralph Stanley & Ricky Skaggs. Sparks is never overwhelmed by the company, making the crisply produced “40” a wonderful way to be introduced to the man who calls himself “the youngest of the old-timers.” There are no dead spots here, but if you’re looking for a highlight, it’s “Blues Stay Away From Me,” played at a daredevil pace with Gill adding tenor vocal.
Mark O’Connor’s Appalachia Waltz Trio, “Crossing Bridges”produced by O’Connor (OMAC Records)Fiddler/violinist Mark O’Connor strikes again to erase the line that divides classical from folk string music. Playing with violist Carol Cook and cellist Natalie Haas as the Appalachia Waltz Trio, O’Connor works in a similar vein as he did with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer on the “Appalachia Waltz” and “Appalachian Journey” recordings. On “Crossing Bridges,” the music jumps from concert hall to back porch, sometimes with startling suddenness. The best part about the album is that there really doesn’t seem to be any overtly conscious effort at crossing bridges or blending styles. It’s such a natural expression of O’Connor’s musical persona that the various styles seem to overlap each other. And the two young women seem to follow right in O’Connor’s footsteps.”Moody Bluegrass”produced by David Harvey (Rounder)I’ve been turned off by bluegrass tributes to Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Dave Matthews Band, even Jerry Garcia. So why would a tribute to the Moody Blues work?It’s all in who it is paying tribute. Here, it’s the cream of the bluegrass world: John Cowan gets lead vocals on “Nights in White Satin” – with Alison Krauss and Sam Bush harmonizing – and “I’m Just a Singer in a Rock & Roll Band,” and Tim O’Brien does the honors on “Land of Make Believe” and “Legend of a Mind.” Backing them are the likes of fiddlers Stuart Duncan and Aubrey Haynie. It’s a step better than most of these tributes, which is probably not enough to get me to play it again.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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