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Putting bluegrass on front burner

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

I serve up Nick Aives as the ideal example of how bluegrass music seems to be captivating people these days. Two years ago, Aives was a student at Ithaca College in upstate New York, studying jazz guitar and playing around with various musicians. He knew nothing about bluegrass. But when a bunch of musician friends, spearheaded by Phil Weinrobe, decided to play bluegrass, Aives dove in headfirst.Within a week’s time, Aives had bought a banjo and was playing his first gigs on the new instrument. Aives and his fellow pickers in Cletus & the Barnburners – mandolinist Thomas Eaton, guitarist Michael Penque, fiddler Ben Smith and bassist Phil Weinrobe – were similarly uninformed about bluegrass. So when the fivesome played on the college commons, the performances consisted of playing the same four tunes over and over. “But we got a good response,” said Aives, who – along with his bandmates – recently graduated from Ithaca. “We got some gigs in Ithaca.”For the last two years, Aives and his mates have been making up for lost time. They learned how to play by listening to “Old & In the Way,” the 1973 bluegrass classic. They found inspiration in the music of the late fiddler John Hartford. The summer after those first street gigs, Cletus & the Barnburners took an educational group field trip to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, soaking up the bluegrass music and culture. By last summer, Cletus & the Barnburners were a performing band. They returned to Telluride and entered the band competition, and took the opportunity to play some gigs around Colorado. Around home, they appeared at some small festivals. They released a debut album, “Backwards Bluegrass,” taking the title from their own description of the music. Still, Cletus and the boys didn’t claim to be experts in the field of bluegrass. Far from it.”We called ourselves a bluegrass band,” said Aives. “But we didn’t know anything about bluegrass, pretty much. And it should be noted, we don’t claim to know a lot about bluegrass now. We’re learning.”Clearly they are eager students. Earlier this month, they released a second CD, “Going to the Barn,” featuring eight original tunes and covers of such well-worn bluegrass material as Hartford’s “Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie” and the Dillards’ “Old Home Place.” The music on the CD is well-played, especially for a bunch of relative neophytes. Last weekend, they returned to Telluride. And while they still haven’t made it to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s main stage, at least they weren’t mere audience members this time, as Cletus & the Barnburners played a club gig at the Roma. This week, the band – as a quartet, without fiddler Smith – plays Aspen, with a two-night stand at the Double Diamond’s G Spot on Monday and Tuesday, June 30 and July 1.Aives claims that Cletus & the Barnburners’ music really does sound like “backwards bluegrass.” “You can hear it in our music,” he said. “There are a lot of jazz things and performance music in the middle of the bluegrass.”Apart from unlearning their jazz pasts and embracing bluegrass, there is the matter of still learning their new instruments. “We’re really a band of a bass player and three guitar players,” said Eaton, who had never played mandolin before starting Cletus & the Barnburners. “And the bass player really wants to be a guitar player.”But Aives and Eaton may be focusing on the days of old, when the band knew just four songs. “Going to the Barn” may not be the most traditional bluegrass sound; the vocals, especially, are a giveaway that these guys weren’t raised on Bill Monroe and Del McCoury. But the picking isn’t all that far from standard bluegrass. And the deeper they get into it, the more the players of Cletus & the Barnburners see what a natural fit bluegrass is.”I realized after a while that it’s real rural and folky – and I had never been exposed to that kind of music before,” said Eaton. “I thought, `That shit’s awesome – why have I not heard bluegrass my whole life?’ Both my parents were farmers, and I really liked that vibe.”With only two years of the music under their belts, there are still bluegrass discoveries to be made for Cletus & the Barnburners. Like the music of John Hartford, whose 1971 album “Aereo-Plain” is considered a landmark in the modernization of bluegrass. “One of the things that got us all from bluegrass fans to extreme bluegrass fans was getting into John Hartford,” said Eaton. “We never got to see him – we discovered his music just after he died. But we do a bunch of his songs, and he really did a lot for us.”Eaton finds that the lack of a bluegrass background has its advantages. “I think it helped that we didn’t know about bluegrass when we started,” added Eaton. “It means we had to create our own style.”The band has put its various interest together in the numerous rock and blues songs that they play bluegrass style. Their set lists can include the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” Led Zeppelin’s “Hot Dog,” Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally” and the Grateful Dead’s “Cumberland Blues.” Such songs allow the band to combine their newfound passion for bluegrass with the music they were raised on.”That stuff is really in our blood,” said Eaton. There’s plenty more bluegrass headed this way in the days ahead.The big one – for me and many others, the concert of the summer – is the Del McCoury Band, playing a free show on the Fourth of July on Snowmass Village’s Fanny Hill. Expect half the valley, and plenty of bluegrass fans who live nowhere near the valley, to gather for this one.Carbondale’s Performances in the Park series features North Carolina’s Acoustic Syndicate, a band built around banjo and acoustic guitar that mixes rock, jazz and bluegrass, on Friday, July 27. The Aspen Skiing Company’s Bluegrass Sundays brings Cloudcity Syncopatious to the top of Aspen Mountain on Sunday, June 29. Also coming up in the series are Paonia’s Sweet Sunny South on July 6; local quartet the Frying Pan Bluegrass Band on July 13; San Francisco newgrass trio Free Peoples on July 20; and the Lone Pine Bluegrass Band, another local outfit, on July 27.The Sunlight Mountain Bluegrass Festival, set for Friday through Sunday, July 4-6, at Sunlight Mountain Resort outside Glenwood Springs, features International Bluegrass Music Association guitarist of the year Jim Hurst, playing in his quartet and in a duet with bassist Missy Raines, as well as Open Road, Kane’s River, the Grasshoppers, Bearfoot Bluegrass and others. Those who have read “Shakey,” Jimmy McDonough’s exhaustive, semi-authorized biography of Neil Young, know that Young is an uncompromising, egotistical artist, given to indulging whatever whim he has. Old Neil is at it again. A few weeks ago in Europe, Young unveiled his latest project, “Greendale.” “Greendale” is a song cycle and theatrical stage show, with costumed actors, which Young is expected to continue performing when he arrives for a date later this summer at Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival. According to reviews, Young plays the entire, as-yet-unrecorded 10-song “Greendale” cycle as part of his concerts. “Greendale” touches on environmental themes, and centers around the Green family – especially the young woman Sun Green – who live in a California coastal town.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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