Railroad Earth still living ‘The Good Life’
Bluegrass season officially opens this week – so grab your gun and get a banjo in your sites.The Telluride Bluegrass Festival runs through Sunday, June 20. Closer to home, the Aspen Skiing Co.’s Bluegrass Sundays on Aspen Mountain opens Sunday with local group the Frying Pan Bluegrass Band.Following are reviews of recent bluegrassy CDs.Railroad Earth, “The Good Life”produced by Stewart Lerman and Railroad Earth (Sugar Hill)A lot of bands are doing neat, innovative things with bluegrass instruments. But arguably no one is doing it as well as Railroad Earth, a band from that bluegrass hotbed of New Jersey.The band’s strength is lead singer and songwriter Todd Sheaffer, and Sheaffer’s strength is that he isn’t a bluegrass singer or writer, doesn’t try to be, and consequently has a unique sound and style. Neither does the band ever try to emulate the bluegrass prototype. On “Way of the Buffalo,” the inspiration seems to be the swaggering country boogie of The Band.Sheaffer’s writing is dreamy, inspired by images of nature and the rural working life. His voice is earthy and distinctive, but without affecting a twang. Layer that voice over Railroad Earth’s expertly constructed mix of string instruments and drums, with touches of horns and keyboards, and what you get is a satisfying album like “The Good Life.” The album’s loose theme is refreshing to hear: the good life is in working hard, keeping your chin up and overcoming obstacles. Among the treats here are “Long Way to Go,” a hard-charging country-rocker, and “Storms,” about fighting the good fight against what the world throws your way.Even when Sheaffer steps aside, as on the instrumental “Water Fountain Quicksand,” Railroad Earth rips with coordinated, rather than flashy, soloing. Finally, there’s an unlabeled last track, singing the praises of New Jersey. Gotta like that.Darol Anger and the American Fiddle Ensemble, “Republic of Strings”produced by Anger (Compass)
Fiddler Darol Anger has picked up an influence or twelve in his years with the David Grisman Quintet, Turtle Island String Quartet, NewGrange Fiddlers 4 and his frequent collaborator Mike Marshall. On “Republic of Strings,” Anger assembles the American String Ensemble – guitarist Scott Nygaard, fiddler Brittany Haas, cellists Rushad Eggleston and Natalie Haas – and endeavors to demonstrate the sounds of the whole wide world.Each of the CD’s 13 tunes is pinned to a specific place (except the multi-cultural “Where to Now?” which must feel either like a citizen of the world or a homeless bum). All borders are broken down here, with the ports of call ranging from Detroit (for Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” with vocals by Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins) and Los Angeles (Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me”) to more obvious string-music hotspots like Ireland (Liz Carroll’s “Lost in the Loop”) and Kentucky (Bill Monroe’s “Old Dangerfield”). The transitions from, say, Africa to Finland can be jarring. But the music never sounds forced, and is instead marked by the glory of discovery: hey, you can play a Mississippi blues, or a West African drinking song, on fiddles and cellos without sounding corny.The BlueBrass Project, “The Same Pocket, Vol. 1″produced by Chris “BTO” Jones (Meantime Lounge Records)This congregation of New Orleans brass (including members of Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Rebirth Brass Band) and Appalachian strings (members of Acoustic Syndicate, Larry and Jenny Keel) is billed as “bluegrass meets the Big Easy.” If it’s a battle, the Big Easy wins: the volume of brass instruments is naturally going to overwhelm acoustic strings playing. Further, the material is lifted mainly from the New Orleans tradition: “Jesus on the Mainline,” “Lil’ Liza Jane,” “O-Me, O-My-O.” And if there is an overall vibe, it is of a New Orleans parade.But “The Same Pocket” is filled with loose, joyous playing. And those moments when the brass turns down and lets the string players solo over the Big Easy beats, there is something to this idea. The most clever tune here is a version of fiddler John Hartford’s “Streetcar” – a bluegrass nod to New Orleans, with the grass and brass in balance.”MerleFest Live: The Best of 2003″produced by Jim Barrow (Welk Music Group)Living in Colorado, I’ve gotten used to the idea that bluegrass is a progressive field, where innovation and experimentation are welcome. But my banjo-picking friend warns me often about these festivals in the South that don’t cotton to the idea of messing with Bill Monroe’s music.Here’s the proof. MerleFest is the 17-year-old festival, held in Wilkesboro, N.C. in memory of finger-picking guitarist Merle Watson, son of flatpicker Doc Watson. Damn, Wilkesboro is a long way from Telluride.”MerleFest Live” opens, appropriately, with a take on the old, syrupy Freddy Fender hit “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” by Texas swing band Asleep at the Wheel. Part of the lyric is sung in Spanish – not exactly the kind of innovation I was thinking of. The parade of oldies continues with The Whites doing “San Antonio Rose,” Doc Watson’s “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” and Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder’s “How Mountain Girls Can Love.” The most daring track – Donna the Buffalo’s electrified but dull “Conscious Evolution” – is relegated to the end of the CD.
It’s not just the song selections, but the musical ideas that make this sound moldy: A group calling itself Vassar’s Jam, starring fiddler Vassar Clements , accompanied by modern thinkers Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice and more, does wonderful things with “Orange Blossom Special.” The tune is introduced as “the fiddle player’s anthem,” but the group shakes the dust off it. Much of the picking here is splendid. Doc Watson is inspired on “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” But “MerleFest Live” makes you feel as if you’re in a bluegrass museum, listening to the music from behind a pane of glass. Bluegrass is thriving these days because Béla Fleck, David Grisman, Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss and Sam Bush have allowed the music to breathe. It’s hard to hear that sense of evolution here.Reeltime Travelers, “Livin’ Reeltime, Thinkin’ Old-Time”produced by Bob Carlin (Yodel-Ay-Hee)So, after dissing “MerleFest Live” for being a relic, how can I praise the latest recording by the Reeltime Travelers, a Tennessee band that trucks in old-timey songs and styles?I think it’s because Reeltime Travelers, formed four years ago of five youngish pickers, sound as if they’re discovering the material through a contemporary filter. That, and lead singer Martha Scanlan has a Gillian Welch-type knack for sounding timeless; I could listen to her original “Hallelujah” over and over. The appeal falls sharply when Thomas Sneed takes over the lead vocals, but combine Scanlan’s voice with the modern take on old-timey instrumentals like “Flippin’ Jenny,” and this sounds fairly up-to-date.(“Livin’ Reeltime, Thinkin’ Old-Time”) is actually doubly old: the CD was first released in 2002, but has been given new life with a recent distribution deal. Hence, the current review.)Sweet Sunny South, “Bell Creek Dance Club”produced by Adam BurkeOn “Bell Creek Dance Club,” Sweet Sunny South makes music rooted to their hometown of Paonia. The songs reference local places, events and history; spoken interludes between songs tell of drinking episodes, dances and the like. The playing and singing and songs, if not groundbreaking, are done well in high spirits, and the down-home theme is refreshingly genuine.Sweet Sunny South plays July 11 on top of Aspen Mountain as part of the Bluegrass Sundays series.
Larry Keel, “Journey”produced by KeelGive Larry Keep this – his sound is his own. On guitar, Keel’s motto seems to be, speed counts. His version of the Bill Monroe instrumental “Roanoke” that opens “Journey” is blazing. As a vocalist, Keel isn’t quite the same kind of virtuoso, but he holds nothing back, singing in a gruff voice that makes Tom Waits sound polished by comparison. Stylistically, Keel is all over the place. In one song, he’ll throw reggaeish rhythms against jazzy riffs while singing in blues fashion; on the lovely “Mark Vann’s Song,” co-written with the late Leftover Salmon banjoist Vann, Keel’s guitar goes the newgrass route. On “Mother,” Keel comes across as a Doc Watson-type flatpicker and folk-blues crooner.Don’t expect coherence from this. But Keel impresses as a guitarist with few constraints.Larry Keel performs, with special guest Jeff Austin, at Statebridge Lodge on July 15.Del McCoury, “High, Lonesome and Blue”(Rounder)Singer-guitarist Del McCoury has become a bluegrass superstar in recent years thanks to the blistering band, featuring two of his sons, that bears his name. The collection “High, Lonesome and Blue” is small in scale – one CD of tunes from 1987 to 1996, just before the Del McCoury Band hit its stride. The music is solid enough; McCoury’s voice, the definition of high and lonesome, never gets tiring. Still, most of the tracks here – including the classic “High on a Mountain,” the lightning-like “If You’ve Got the Money Honey” and Steve Earle’s If You Need a Fool” – barely hint at the heights McCoury would soon reach. No surprise that the ones that come closest are two tunes, “The Cold Hard Facts” and “Blackjack County Chains,” from ’96 with the lineup that would become the Del McCoury Band.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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Amid the pre-Thanksgiving gloom of grim pandemic news here in Aspen, across Colorado and the mountain west came a small but significant dose of hope in the unlikely form of an Aspen Music Festival and School announcement.