Posts Tagged ‘Boston’


Granny’s Hot Sauce Spices Up the Tradition

15 May 2012

Wanted to share another gem from the hallways of this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. Here’s the new Boston-based group Granny’s Hot Sauce delivering a stark and powerful rendition of a fine old tune, “Foreign Lander”:

The lead singer, George Clements, along with bassist Louis Fram came upon “Foreign Lander” on Tim O’Brien’s “Fiddler’s Green” album, and the band’s version hews closely to O’Brien’s arrangement.

For a tune with so much maritime imagery, it’s ironic that the song laid its deepest roots— in this country at least— in landlocked Kentucky. As Jean Ritchie reported ten years back to the great traditional music site Mudcat Café, her father and his cousin both picked up the song while growing up in the Bluegrass State. Ritchie— who at 89 is today the doyenne of Appalachian folk music— collected the lyrics in the mid-1950’s in her memoir, Singing Family of the Cumberlands. Some years after that, a second cousin of Ritchie’s, Martha Hall, sang the song for an itinerant folklorist, which is where I suspect the tune’s discography begins.

Ritchie hypothesizes that the song originated in the British Isles, and simply judging from appearances, it’s hard to imagine otherwise. If anyone can shed light on those transatlantic beginnings, or on other variants of this sweet and mournful tune, drop us a line.

Yer Pal— Curly


Adding a Dash of Granny’s Hot Sauce

24 April 2012

So I was ambling down a hallway at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival when I heard a joyful noise— not yer typical round robin jam session, but an ensemble playing as one unit. I followed my ears, and this is what I found:

Meet Granny’s Hot Sauce, a group that recently sprouted at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. GHS is further proof, if any is needed, of the continued vibrancy of both Boston’s music scene and Berklee’s American Roots Music Program. Granny’s Hot Sauce is—

  • George Clements: Guitar and Vocals
  • Lydia Luce: Fiddle and Vocals
  • Taylor Hales: Banjo
  • Louis Fram: Bass
  • Dan Bui: Mandolin

The composition featured in the video has many of the features of an old fiddle tune: the open intervals, the “crooked” rhythm— even the rustic title. As it happens, “Brush Hogger” wasn’t penned by that most prolific of songwriting teams, Mr. Anonymous and Ms. Traditional. The tune was in fact written by the band’s banjo player, Taylor Hales. It doesn’t require much imagination to picture a hallway at, say, the 2032 Joe Val Bluegrass Festival where we’ll stumble upon another band of bright young musicians playing that popular standard, “Brush Hogger.” How cool would that be?

The McGann Legacy

American roots music and the contemporary string community lost a major figure with the recent passing of John McGann. McGann was an integral part of Boston’s bluegrass and Celtic music scenes for decades. He was also a professor at the Berklee College of Music. Several members of Granny’s Hot Sauce studied with McGann, and their recollections offer a compelling testament to his wit, charm and knowledge. “All I can say is… John was was an exceptional man, musician, and teacher,” says bassist Louis Fram. “As a professor, he had the ability get on your level, and make you feel as though he believed in you.” Eulogizing McGann on the Mandolin Café website, Mandolinist Dan Bui notes how his teacher’s appreciation of music encompassed not just traditional forms, but everything from Cannonball Adderley to Anton Webern. Bui then provides this eloquent summary:

But more than anything John was an absolutely beautiful and caring human being, a teacher in every sense of the word. He always had a smile on his face, would stop and talk to you if he saw you on the street, and was always quick with a joke. I know I’m not the only student who realizes that the void left by John’s passing at Berklee can never be filled.

Goodbye John. We’ll miss you.

No doubt Bui is right: McGann’s passing has left a void. And yet surely his spirit and legacy live on whenever Granny’s Hot Sauce plays a tune.

Yer Pal— Curly


Crooked Still: The Streets of Boston

12 July 2011

As yer Cousin Curly hastily packs his knapsack for Grey Fox, the largest of the New England bluegrass festivals, he pauses for a moment… Hang on a sec… [Sounds of third person voice being tossed into the verbal insinkerator.]

The point is, just as Grey Fox is a locus for the more progressive (sorry to employ that vapid term, but I’m in a rush) edge of the New England bluegrass scene, so has Crooked Still stood, for the past decade, as the lynchpin for a still youthful generation of Boston musicians. For the third year in a row, the band will be back at Grey Fox. It’s therefore fitting to take this opportunity to post a final segment (for now at least) of Ye Olde Performer Showcase featuring the band. In this installment, we circle back to the beginning, in a sense, by getting the band to talk about its roots in— and its ongoing connection to— Boston.

The song featured in this clip is “Lonesome Road.” As Matt Schofield notes in his super-helpful Grateful Dead Family Discography, some versions of the song overlap another popular ballad, “In the Pines.”

“Lonesome Road” goes all the way back to Crooked Still’s debut album, Hop High. This means that an eleven year-old kid who happened to stumble upon the band’s first commercial recording might be an entering freshman this fall at Berklee College of Music, New England Conservatory, or any of the other Boston institutions where the practice and performance of American roots music are being taught. Will that fresh-faced arrival on the Boston scene carry on the meshing of old and new that has marked Crooked Still’s work, or will they veer off in some new direction? In other words, where is the Boston music scene headed? I’ll be keeping my ears open as I tromp the fields of Grey Fox, and of course I’ll report if I sight any new genus or species of note. In the meantime, as always, let us know yer thoughts.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— RIP Kenny Baker. For anyone attending Grey Fox, be sure to catch the brief tribute to this fiddler extraordinaire, scheduled to happen around 3:30 on Friday. A stellar line-up will be paying homage to the man who for many still defines the bluegrass fiddle.


Play Me “Liberty,” or Play Me “O Death”!

28 June 2010

Went for a run along the Esplanade in Our Fair City yesterday and saw that the scaffolding for this year’s July 4th festivities was already in place by the band shell. Yikes! As the old song goes, “Who knows where the time goes?” All of which is to say that it’s time for Cousin Curly to get his Independence Day video polished up and posted. Without further ado…

For those keeping score at home, that is Yours Truly’s fifth-rate uke and banjo uke strummin’ accompanying my own fourth-rate mandolin pickin’ in a third-rate attempt at homegrown multi-tracking cleaned up with some second-rate editing and first-rate software.

And yep, we had a heck of a view of the fireworks.  Thanks to some friends in high places, we were perched on a penthouse balcony, overlooking the Esplanade, virtually level with the fireworks. Highly recommended, but bring yer earplugs!

However those of you in these United States plan to celebrate our nation’s birth, its love of pyrotechnics and its advances in brewing, be safe and have fun.

Yer Pal— Curly


Let Us Now Praise Famous Dives, Part 1

22 May 2010

As a transplanted southerner, it will always feel a little weird to call Cambridge, Massachusetts “my hometown.”  It will always feel weird for my neighbors as well, for whom the fifteen or so years I’ve lived here are but a drop in the bucket.  Still, I’ve been around long enough to see the place change a good deal.  With the repeal of rent control shortly after my arrival, a lot of the city’s newcomers— including students, artists and immigrants of all stripes— moved out. Gentrification touched many corners of the city, most visibly Harvard Square, which became a desert of bank offices and optician shops.

Even so, a ragtag cohort of established restaurants and watering holes have persevered.  This is especially true in the vicinity of Central Square, the knot in the middle of Cambridge’s bow-tie-shaped footprint.  City planners and scions of business have tried to sanitize Central Square, but humble, salty institutions like The Middle East and The Plough and the Stars continue to thrive.

Then there is our living natural history exhibit, the Cantab Lounge.  If you want to get a fix on Cambridge’s distinctive character, you need venture no further than 738 Massachusetts Avenue.  If you’re a fan of bluegrass, make your pilgrimage on a Tuesday night, when the redoubtable Geoff Bartley presides over a program devoted to bluegrass.

I paid a visit this week and was amply rewarded. Della Mae, a well-regarded band with strong ties to Boston, was the headline act.  Here’s a taste of what the scene was like:

Crooked Still, New England’s preeminent roots group, is in town for a concert this weekend at Harvard’s Saunders Theatre.  In the video, that’s Crooked Still’s fiddler, the amazing Brittany Haas, trading licks with Kimber Ludiker of Della Mae.

Haas and Ludiker aren’t just card-carrying members of Boston’s thriving, distinctive and tight-knit traditional music scene; they’re on its Board of Directors.  Whenever two or more such worthies gather in the name of Angeline the Baker or Wild Bill Jones, word spreads fast, and the Cantab is briefly transformed into a clubhouse of sorts, with lots of New England’s hottest and most ambitious players rubbing shoulders and comparing notes up on stage, in the audience, and in the jam space down in the basement.

Given that it’s such a haven for music (including different genres on other nights), it’s always struck me as odd that the Cantab is so freakin’ loud. There are times there when you can’t hear yourself think, much less hear the music.  Bartley presides over an impressive rack of mixing gear. If you stick around until the featured acts are done and the excellent house band takes over, the crowd thins out, and the sound improves markedly.

Some players seem to view the noise as part of the place’s character.  I’m not convinced, but there was something charming and entertaining about the way Della Mae had to compete for the audience’s attention first against a Celtics play-off game, followed by an inning or two of a Red Sox-Yankees nail-biter.  A cheer would go up, and you never knew if it was because someone had played a tasty solo or Orlando had picked up another foul.  Perhaps I need to bring a Zen perspective to Tuesday at the Cantab:  What is the sound of a bluegrass club where you can’t hear the bluegrass?

Certainly, I understand that, in the case of bars and music, perfection is the enemy of awesomeness.  You want a well-lit, acoustically perfect room with good sightlines?  Go to Symphony Hall.  Any first-rate dive needs to be a little rough around the edges, and the Cantab has raised roughness to an artform.  Everything about the place, from the faux stonework of the exterior façade to the musty aroma of the basement carpet proclaims an absolute nonchalance reminiscent of the young Brando.

Rounding out the whole scene is a small but stalwart cohort of regulars.  When I say “regulars,” I don’t mean folks who show up to pick and grin every Tuesday; I refer to customers who should have plaques with their names engraved on them affixed to their stools. Different day; same stools. In truth, in my wide travels, I’ve never found denizens of public houses to be the most welcoming sorts.  After all, for all they know, you might want their stool.  In this regard, Boston is no different, even though it is said to be home to the prototype for the bar in Cheers, “Where everybody knows your name.”

At the Cantab, the regular patrons don’t know my name.  They don’t want to know it. They know all their second cousins, and I’m not one of ‘em, all right? During my most recent visit, the guy to my right seemed to have misgivings the minute I sat down at the bar.  His mood didn’t improve when I pulled out my camera.  He turned to me and said, “Move your umbrella.”  I looked down. There was my umbrella, leaning against my stool (ah, but there’s the problem perhaps:  it wasn’t my stool, was it?  No plaque).  I asked him what was wrong with where it was.  He leaned over to me and said in a tone that was very dark and very, very damp, “I don’t want to touch it.”  I moved the umbrella.

Yer Pal— Curly


What’s in a Tune?

10 May 2010

Fear not:  Cousin Curly’s got lots more sights and sounds to share from his recent southern trip, but right now, we’re going to take a brief detour— a slight step back in time, in fact.  Check out this tasty jam from a workshop with the inimitable Joe Walsh (mandolinist with the Gibson Brothers) at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival

Walsh is accompanied first by Courtney Hartman on guitar and later by Kimber Ludiker on fiddle.  Ludiker and her fiddle literally arrive half-way through the song (you can hear her unpacking her instrument in the background).  This tune represents the first time these three musicians had played together.

The composition featured here, “Saint Anne’s Reel,” started out as a French Canadian fiddle tune and has since spread far and wide.  I used to think people knew it in New England because it’s a staple of contra dancing, but I’ve since run into it all over the place.

At Merlefest, I heard a band play a version of the tune with electric guitar and drums.  Not to beat a dead horse (see my previous post on drums and string bands), but that amped up version, while a lot of fun, was as good an illustration as any of how drumming can “straighten out” a tune.  Lay a “boom-chuck-a” rhythm behind “Saint Anne’s Reel” and it suddenly sounds an awful lot like a polka.  In contrast, in the version I’ve posted here, you can see how Walsh & Co. minutely push and pull the rhythms to give the tune a real bounce.

While I’m sucking all the life out of a fine performance, let me take the opportunity to note a good example of how expert musicians can trade licks to form a kind of musical conversation.  Just about half way into this jam (the 2:15 mark), Hartman plays a little C#-D-E-C#-A phrase:

This phrase isn’t in the original melody, and in playing it, perhaps Hartman was simply transitioning from one chord pattern to another.  Whatever the case, you can hear how Walsh almost immediately seizes upon the phrase, as if to say, “Hey, that’s interesting…” Hartman in turn plays just a fragment of the phrase— now dropped down an octave— just before Ludiker joins in and takes the conversation in new directions.

Last point:  check out how fluently Walsh throws in fistfuls of “passing chords” as he backs Hartman’s solo.  The role these transitional chords have in defining Walsh’s sound can’t be overstated. They lend his playing a sweet and melancholy flavor or color that’s absolutely his own.  Hartman also employs passing chords to nice effect, particularly in the last run-throughs of the tune.

If you like what you heard, Ludiker and Della Mae are playing several shows in the Boston area over the next week or two.

Yer Pal— Curly


Best Ever? Well, Better Than Nothing

5 April 2010

If you live in Greater Boston and you’re curious as to why your Second Cousin Curly refers to his own self as a “fourth rate picker,” then you should make your way over to Gallery 263 in Cambridge next Sunday, April 11th.  Curly will be attempting to play the mandolin in the band Best Ever Chicken.

All proceeds from the “suggested donation” go to support the gallery and our singer.  Said singer, the wonderful Lindsey Grey, is new to bluegrass and therefore has not heard the old saw:

Q:  What is the difference between a  bluegrass musician and a large pizza?

A:  A large pizza can feed a family of four.

Yer Pal— Curly


News Flash: Joy Kills Sorrow on Rainy Night in Cambridge

15 March 2010

Second Cousin Curly caught a truly transcendent performance by Joy Kills Sorrow just up the street in Harvard Square over the weekend. JKS has deep roots in the Bay State, so it made sense that they’d play a release for their new CD, Darkness Sure Becomes This City, at Greater Boston’s legendary venue for acoustic music, Club Passim. Despite the torrential rain, a sold-out crowd turned out, a fact that seemed to take the band a bit by surprise.  At one point, banjo virtuoso Wes Corbett attempted without much success to determine how everyone had heard about the show.  Apparently there’s just something in the ether at this moment telling us all, “Pssst! Check these guys out!” While that’s heartening, part of Curly’s mission is to turn buzz into something more tangible, so here’s a taste of what it looked and sounded like from the back of the room the other night:

You couldn’t ask for a better manifestation of Boston’s roots music scene than this.  The instrumentation is straight out of the string band tradition, but the playing is informed by everything from the Beatles to jazz and gypsy music, and the songwriting is distinctly contemporary in its themes.

Ironically, the band takes its name from a very old tune, “When Joy Kills Sorrow.”  Bill Monroe claimed that he and his brother’s first radio gig was on a mid-western radio station, WJKS, the JKS standing for— can you guess?  Such associations notwithstanding, you only have to listen to a couple of bars of Joy Kills Sorrow to know you’re not in Kansas anymore— nor Nashville, nor Bean Blossom for that matter.

Aficionados of bluegrass— even in groovy Greater Boston— can have a hard time opening up to this stuff, but to my thinking it’s remarkable how Boston has nurtured not just a music scene over the past decade, but a bona fide sound, as distinctive and identifiable as Motown.  A lot of this is due to the burgeoning American Roots Music program at Berklee College of Music, which has served as something of a laboratory where Matt Glaser and his colleagues have played the roles of mad scientists, brashly adding droplets of jazz and pop to the DNA of old time music.

Second Cousin Curly is a lover, not a fighter, so he looks forward to exploring the full range of string band music, traditional and otherwise, in future posts.  In the meantime, you can check out a couple more clips from JKS on Vimeo or on Curly’s brand new YouTube channel.

Yer Pal— Curly

Pedantic Postscript:  I’m aware of Bela Fleck’s recording of “When Joy Kills Sorrow” on his Bluegrass Sessions album.  Although the tune had been around in bluegrass songbooks, it’s my impression that Fleck is responsible for rescuing it from obscurity, but I’d welcome input on the song’s history.

%d bloggers like this: