Posts Tagged ‘Crooked Still’

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More Fiddling Around with Haas & Friends

26 November 2013

As the song title says, the frost is on the pumpkin. If that nip in the air is getting you down, here’s a two-song medley of old fiddle tunes that should buck you up:

Like an earlier medley, this video comes from a cozy house concert in Watertown, Massachusetts last winter featuring Brittany Haas with a crew of fellow travelers, specifically Lily Henley and Kellen Zakula, who join Haas on fiddle, older sister Natalie Haas on cello and Rene del Fierro (off screen) on guitar.

The recorded history of the two tunes featured here— “Shove the Pig’s Foot a Little Further into the Fire” and “Rebel Raid”— reaches back to two important early figures. The consensus in folklore circles seems to be that “Shove the Pig’s Foot…” was first recorded by North Carolina fiddler Marcus Martin, whereas “Rebel Raid” is associated with the great Ed Haley.  Haas tells me that both tunes came to her by way of a more contemporary source: reigning old time fiddling master Bruce Molsky.

Though she has studied and played with Molsky and other current practicioners, Haas is well acquainted with the work of the earlier generations of fiddlers. In addition to Martin and Haley, she cites the work of Tommy Jarrell, Edden Hammons, Manco Sneed and Estill Bingham as influences. “There’s just a huge wealth of source recordings floating around through the old-time community,” says Haas, “so it’s always great to hear different fiddlers and older versions of tunes (as well as old tunes that are new to me still!).”

Name That Tune

“Shove the Pig’s Foot Further Into the Fire” has one of the key attributes of a good fiddle tune: a cryptic title. Vi Wickam has a concise summary of what little is known of the tune’s origins and meanings on his website. I buy the argument that the “pig’s foot” in this case refers to a blacksmith tool rather than an animal byproduct.

Fiddle tunes go in and out of vogue. “Shove the Pig’s Foot” has certainly enjoyed an upswing in popularity over the past few years. Traveling in its wake now is another old tune with a title that always gets folks scratching their heads, “Nail that Catfish to a Tree.” Given the success of these tunes, both of which have such long exhortations for titles, I am thinking of writing a contemporary number that I’m calling “Don’t Forget to Buy Milk.”

The redoubtable musician and teacher Mike Holmes once used “Nail that Catfish to a Tree” as an example of a tune that was better known in a particular region. He said that folks in Tennessee have always been keen on it, while it has only recently gained currency elsewhere. Holmes speculated that this pleasant melody might have benefited from a more appealing title. He could be right on that score, but for those who find the concept of nailing a fish to a tree at best surreal and at worst abhorrent, I can at least offer a little clarification. As anyone who has passed a summer afternoon fishing in a farm pond down South can tell you, catfish have skin as tough as Tyvek. One method for skinning one of these slithery critters is to nail it to something solid and then use pliers to pull off the skin. Nailing a catfish to a tree is therefore not so much bizarre as mundane. I’m aware that this explanation doesn’t really get us any closer to answering the more fundamental question of why this phrase got attached to that tune.

Perhaps “Nail that Catfish to a Tree” has a second meaning? Fiddle tune titles sometimes carry such hidden or coded messages. Take the title “Frost on the Pumpkin” I mentioned at the outset. The late, great Kenny Baker penned the fiddle tune bearing that name. You might assume that the title is meant to do no more than summon up a wistful image of rustic beauty, but several sources tell me that “frost on the pumpkin” is an old saying that refers to feeling randy. Whether or not the always grave and dignified Mr. Baker had making whoopee in mind when he wrote the song is beyond my ken. I will say this much: should “Frost on the Pumpkin” lead to “Makin’ Whoopee,” and thence to “A Bun in the Oven,” I heartily encourage you to name yer progeny Edden, Manco or Estill.

Once again, we extend our gratitude to notloB Parlour Concerts for the invitation to this intimate soirée and to the hosts for opening their home to us. Jeff Boudreau— notloB mastermind— tells me that he has a trio of concerts featuring Brittany Haas coming up. Check his website for details.

Finally, thanks go out as well to Paul Villanova for his help with the shoot and Ehsan Moghaddasi for his tasteful editing.

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Fiddle Camp with Brittany Haas & Friends

28 August 2013

As I write this, the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School is in full swing. Yep, the moon is full, and if you aren’t sure if Scottish fiddlers can swing, you need only look at this video featuring a bunch of VOM graduates and instructors:

This clip is from the raucous finale that closed a house concert in Watertown, Massachusetts last winter featuring Brittany Haas with a whole bunch of friends and relations. The two-tune medley ties together a traditional Irish tune, “Bill Malley’s Barndance,” with a contemporary composition, “E-B-E Reel” by Liz Carroll a prominent performer, composer and instructor of Celtic music.

As you can see, the cozy living room “stage” was packed with musicians, including no less than four fiddlers: Haas, Lily Henley, Kellen Zakula and Duncan Wickel. I knew that this concert was more or less an ad hoc event, pulling together a group of friends for a night of music. I therefore asked Haas how it was that all of the performers could so quickly master a tune like “E-B-E Reel,” which has yet to enter the traditional canon.  Haas responded that they had all “learned it from Liz directly at a fiddle camp in California—Valley of the Moon.”

It’s hard to overstate the influence fiddle camps have had on traditional string music. More often than not, when I hear some tune cropping up at concerts and jams, its popularity can be traced back to its having been in the repertoire of a popular fiddle camp. It’s also common for a fiddle camp’s special recipe for some old-time tune to take hold as the music gets recycled once again. And then there are the original compositions inspired by fiddle camps. No fiddle camp, no “Ashokan Farewell.”

Fiddle camps have also had an enormous impact on playing technique. Watching this video, you don’t just hear that these folks share a common background; you can see it. There is little trace of the cramped style of traditional Appalachian fiddling. This is especially noticeable in the right hand: the players really move the bow across the string with ramrod-straight articulation.

That’s true even of Duncan Wickel, who was performing that night with an interesting handicap. If you aren’t familiar with Wickel, you will be soon. Once you start looking for him, he’s a bit like Waldo, showing up everywhere. Most recently I caught him over the summer playing with otherworldly cello phenom Rushad Eggleston. Wickel was in the audience for the Watertown house concert and was called up to join his friends for the encore. There was a spare fiddle on hand for him to use, but when it came to a bow, all that could be found was a cello bow.  Using the shorter and stouter weapon didn’t seem to slow Wickel down at all.

Fiddle camps often bear the imprimatur of a particular master or group of artists. The Ashokan to which fiddlers are bidding farewell is Ashokan Music & Dance Camp, which is associated with Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. In the case of Valley of the Moon, the guiding force is Alasdair Fraser, the renowned Scottish fiddler who has played with Haas’ sister Natalie since she was in her teens. That’s Natalie on cello in the house concert video. As you can hear, her driving rhythms provide both a pulse and an anchor to a jam that could have easily spun out of control.

Indeed, when I congratulated Haas (younger sister Britanny, that is) at the conclusion of the concert, I could tell she was concerned that the finale had too many rough edges. This is a difficulty I often encounter: the musician and the audience view a performance through opposite ends of the telescope and come away with very different impressions. The performer understandably examines every nuance, whereas the audience concerns itself only with the overall effect. I assured Haas that the concert had ended on a very high note. Looking back at it through the lens of my camera, I still feel that way. All-star jams disappoint more often than not, but in this case, the joy of friends reconnecting is palpable. Watching them all rocking out on their former teacher’s tune, it’s not hard to imagine their younger selves practicing together— or just having boisterous, loud fun— in a camp cabin years ago.

Thanks to notloB Parlour Concerts for the invitation to this intimate soirée and to the hosts for opening their home to us. Thanks as well to Paul Villanova for his help with the shoot and Ehsan Moghaddasi for his patience and ingenuity in editing the footage.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Fade In: The Deadly Gentlemen

3 April 2013

The Deadly Gentlemen, a Boston-based outfit, have just announced that their next album will be released by venerable Rounder Records. The album, which will be titled “Roll Me, Tumble Me” is due out in July, but to whet our appetite, the group has just released a three-song EP, “Bored of the Raging.” With all this buzz, the time is right to share this video, which showcases some of the band’s new material:

The Deadly Gentlemen consist of Greg Liszt on banjo, Stash Wyslouch on guitar, Mike Barnett on fiddle, Dominick Leslie on mandolin, and Sam Grisman on double bass. Although Wyslouch’s voice does a lot of the heavy lifting, all five members contribute to vocals, which allows the group to achieve a variety of textures in their songs.

Every member of the band has virtuosic chops on their respective instruments as well. Given this breadth of talent, it might not be strictly accurate to peg Liszt as the group’s leader. Nevertheless, since he came to The Deadly Gentlemen with a ten-year stint in the renowned and influential band Crooked Still already on his résumé, it’s hard not to see him as the band’s éminance grise. Certainly the rich sonic tapestry of the band’s wonderful debut CD, “Carry Me to Home” seemed to owe a lot to Liszt’s taste for filigree in both lyrics and musical technique.

As evidenced in the video clip, the band’s newer songs are generally simpler and more direct. The emphatic rhythmic hooks of the early material are still there, but now they are frequently mingled with soaring melodies that, when repeated, can create a trance-like effect.

Over the past few months, the band has been touring with Greensky Bluegrass and The Yonder Mountain String Band. On one level, this makes sense. It’s easy to imagine the Dead Gents getting a warm reception in the jam band culture of which those bands are a product. At the same time, The Deadly Gentlemen’s songs tend to be more tightly arranged than yer typical jam band’s stuff. As anyone who has seen one of their combustible live shows can attest, these guys know how to cut loose, but most of their tunes clock in at no more than a few minutes.

In describing its music, the group says it has “kind of a rock ‘n’ roll feel,” and Liszt doesn’t hide the fact that, before he picked up the banjo, he went through a phase during which he listened to almost nothing but the Rolling Stones. The Deadly Gentlemen are known to cover a Stones song or two, and the Jagger/Richards influence comes through in their music in other ways as well. If all bluegrass jam bands on some level can be seen as offspring of the Grateful Dead, then The Deadly Gentlemen are the progeny of the Rolling Stones. That formula might be a bit reductive, but as with any effective caricature, it captures the essential features of its subjects.

We recorded “Faded Star” during a sound check at The Lizard Lounge, an intimate listening room/watering hole in Cambridge, Massachusetts that has served as a testing ground and second home for The Deadly Gentlemen as they have refined their sound over the past several years. We’re working on another video from that shoot, so don’t wander too far. To Joe Stewart and the Lizard Lounge management, thanks for the use of the hall.

Yer Pal— Curly

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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.

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Crooked Still: It’s Not the Tune’s Fault

7 June 2011

What happens when you fall out of love with a tune, or when you never loved a tune to begin with, but you still have to play it? That’s the impolite questions I posed to the members of the group Crooked Still in the latest segment of Ye Olde Performer Showcase.

The title of this segment— “It’s Not the Tune’s Fault”— comes from an expression bassist Corey DiMario attributes to one of his teachers at New England Conservatory, the noted bassist John Lockwood.

The song featured in this clip is of course the well-known murder ballad “Little Sadie,” and I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the tune by including it in this segment. I had the good fortune to hear Doc & Merle Watson play a concert at Memorial Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill back in the 70’s, and that’s probably the first time I heard “Little Sadie.” I’ve heard a lot of renditions of the song in intervening years, but as with many people, I suspect, Doc’s version remains the archetype. Even after all these years, I’m still not sick of it.

Crooked Still seems to make a point of keeping their back catalog in play, as it were. In concert, they are as likely to play a tune from their first album as they are to play one from their most recent release. “Little Sadie” is featured on their excellent sophomore outing, Shaken By a Low Sound, an album that is now almost five years old. If anyone in the band is growing tired of recounting the tale of Little Sadie’s demise, they aren’t showing it.

I wish I had time to do some research on “Little Sadie,” but perhaps my faithful readers can help me out. To be honest, apart from the chilling randomness of the murder, the confusion as to the narrator’s name (perhaps it’s Lee Brown?) and the simple, all-verses-no-chorus structure, the song doesn’t sound that old. To my ears at least, the rhymes are too neat and the story progresses too logically to be a folk song with ancient roots. Or did the ditty just get a major overhaul in the hands of Mr. Watson or some other mid-century master? If you know, let me know.

Above all, I’d love to hear folks’ thoughts on tunes that wear out their welcome. Do you find that it’s “hate at first listen,” or do songs just get old? Do you fall in and out of love with tunes? Do you agree with DiMario and Lockwood’s assertion that it’s not the tune’s fault? Whatever the case, is it possible to rekindle a love that’s lost? Enquiring pickers want to know!

Yer Pal— Curly

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Crooked Still: A Sound All Their Own

29 April 2011

I can’t think of another string band that has a more distinctive sound than Crooked Still.  I recently talked with the group about its musical identity. Was having such an identifiable sound a blessing or a curse? Did they consciously maintain a specific style, or did it just happen organically? Here’s what they told me…

It’s a measure of Crooked Still’s influence that you can no longer simply identify it as “the band with the cello.” Even so, the cello has been and continues to be essential to defining the group’s sound. When he joined the group in 2007, cellist Tristan Clarridge took on a seemingly impossible job: filling the shoes of the group’s original cellist, Rushad Eggleston. Eggleston essentially invented a new technique for his instrument, adapting the crisp chop developed by Richard Greene and Darol Anger to produce a complex and percussive rhythmic foundation. Clarridge had apprenticed with Anger in his Republic of Strings ensemble, so he was uniquely suited to take over for Eggleston. These days, working in concert with bassist Corey DiMario, Clarridge lays down a groove on many up-tempo tunes that will shake the rafters.

Another trademark of Crooked Still is its penchant for rediscovering old songs. The band clearly has spent many an hour listening to field recordings by itinerant folklorists. I assume this in how they came upon the song featured in the video clip above— “Cold Mountains.” Alan Lomax recorded the Appalachian singer Texas Gladdens singing this elegant ballad several decades ago. As is their wont, the band polishes up and adds color to their arrangement while remaining quite faithful to the melody and lyrics.

“Cold Mountains” is included on Crooked Still’s most recent release, Some Strange Country. When I first heard it, I thought it might be an original composition. Over the years, members of the band have written a number of their own tunes, an accomplishment for which they don’t receive sufficient credit. Come to think of it, my confusion could be held up as further proof of the group’s unique musical identity. Whether they are playing an ancient tune, a song by the Rolling Stones or an original number, their sound is always entirely their own.

There’s more from Crooked Still yet to come, but this is an opportune moment to thank the band once again for sitting for their collective portrait. A special tip of the hat to the group’s label as well, which is named— appropriately enough— Signature Sounds.

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Crooked Still: Building Songs Old & New

25 March 2011

Time for another installment of Ye Olde Performer Showcase featuring the cutting edge string band Crooked Still. Here the band talks about how they approach arranging their songs. Have a look and a listen…

From the outset, Crooked Still’s sound has been largely built on their reworking old tunes. As bassist Corey DiMario points out, at times these arrangements are so radical as to practically constitute an entirely new tune. This is why it’s often hard to discern which songs on a Crooked Still album are original compositions and which are traditional numbers: both bear the marks of the band’s collective style and sundry personalities.

In the case of the tune featured in this video, the band sticks pretty close to the earlier versions I’ve heard. The critical element they add— the “special sauce” that really makes the song come alive for me— is that hammering bass groove. Aoife O’Donovan explains that it was this hook, developed by DiMario and the group’s original cellist Rushad Eggleston, that provided the foundation for their version of the tune.

What’s remarkable to me is how much the resulting arrangement’s very contemporary beat recaptures the “straighter” but equally propulsive rhythm of Brother Claude Ely’s rendition (which you can experience here). Brother Claude was a revival preacher and singer who was especially associated with “Ain’t No Grave”(so much so that it’s also the title of a biography about him). Comparing Crooked Still and Brother Claude’s versions of the song, I’m struck by the fact that, although these artists undoubtedly followed very different paths to arrive at this material, they are united by an unfathomable bond, a common musical essence. That bond sums up the strength and the beauty of traditional music.

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