Posts Tagged ‘Greg Liszt’

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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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Crooked Still A Decade On

17 February 2011

Hard to believe it, but the Boston-based outfit Crooked Still turns ten this year. Perhaps it’s because they’ve infused new blood into their line-up along the way, or because they’ve maintained a perch on the edge of bluegrass, pop and old-time music, or just because I’m really, really old, but whatever the case, the band still exudes a youthful exuberance onstage and off.

I recently caught up with the band in concert at a one-night bluegrass “festival” at the intimate Town Hall Theatre in Woodstock, Vermont. Before the show, the entire distillation apparatus— that would be Aoife O’Donovan, Greg Liszt, Brittany Haas, Corey DiMario and Tristan Clarridge— consented to sit for a group portrait. I asked them about their beginnings…

The “Casey” that Greg Liszt refers to in describing how he first met Rushad Eggleston, the founding cellist in the band, is the noted fiddler Casey Driessen. Driessen was attending Berklee College of Music in Boston in the late 1990’s. During this period, one of Driessen’s professors at Berklee, Matt Glaser, formed Wayfaring Strangers, a group that pulled together musicians with backgrounds in jazz, bluegrass, swing and folk music to perform bluegrass and old-time tunes. Glaser invited O’Donovan, then a student at New England Conservatory of Music, to join the group as a vocalist. Soon thereafter, O’Donovan banded together with Liszt, Eggleston and NEC classmate Corey DiMario to form Crooked Still.

As this thumbnail history makes clear, Boston in the late 1990’s was a hotbed of musical talent, with everyone connected one way or another to everyone else. The style that emerged from this scene was seemingly oxymoronic: “innovative traditional music,” which is to say music that applied contemporary performance practice to ancient folk tunes and bluegrass. If this hybrid approach is the specialty of the house in Beantown, then Crooked Still certainly remains the house band. A decade on, the group continues to be the chief proponent of a peculiarly Bostonian brand of bohemian bluegrass. Thanks to their heavy tour schedule, their distinctive sound is now familiar to lovers of string band music from Malmö to Melbourne.

We’ll explore the group’s place within the Boston music scene and much more in forthcoming segments of Ye Old Performer’s Showcase, so don’t wander too far.

The tune performed here, “New Railroad,” is quintessential Crooked Still in that it synthesizes ancient and contemporary influences. The bones of the song, which form a dark and fragmentary narrative, are clearly very old, yet such diverse popular figures as The Grateful Dead, Joe Val, Dave Van Ronk and Grandpa Jones have forged their own versions of it. These latter-day renditions have all gone by the title “I’ve Been All Around This World.” Historians trace the original tune variously back to Britain or Kentucky. Hats off to Alex Allan who, with help from Matt Schofield and Jim Nelson, has compiled a fine online summary of what is known about the song.

Thanks to all the members of Crooked Still for sharing so generously their time, thoughts and music. Thanks as well to Flora Reed at Signature Sounds for her help with this profile.

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Crooked Still: Main Stage Presence

14 November 2010

Whether by design or accident, New England’s shrine to folk music, Club Passim, is hosting a weeklong showcase of cutting edge string bands with Boston roots. Crooked Still kicks things off on November 17th and 18th. Not surprisingly, their four shows in this tiny venue are already sold out. Next up, on the 19th, is Joy Kills Sorrow, who return to Passim after a summer and fall touring the U.S. and Canada. Wrapping things up on the 22nd is the newcomer of the bunch, the bluegrass outfit Della Mae.

I caught Crooked Still’s shows at this year’s Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. The band has often performed at Grey Fox, but as the sun sank on the first official day of the festival and the quintet set up, vocalist Aoife O’Donovan wryly noted that this time they had almost achieved their goal of playing on the main stage after dark. They then kicked things off with a number from their latest CD, Some Strange Country, “Calvary.” I’ve been waiting for the right moment to share this chestnut, and I believe the time has come…

One of the most appealing aspects of Crooked Still’s performance style is that it creates an atmosphere of spontaneity on stage. Never mind that this may largely be pure showmanship (I’ve heard rumors that banjo wiz Liszt writes out his manic solos in detail). Watch how giddy O’Donovan appears at the end of “Calvary.” She has the look of someone in a jam session who has just stumbled upon a moment of perfect harmony. I’ve seen her react like this at the end of songs over and over, yet I buy it every time. Imitators take note: if you want to hold the audience in your hand, try bottling a little joy like this band does.

Listening to that tune and the set that followed, I couldn’t imagine who else might need to be convinced that Crooked Still is ready to be a headliner, but while the band clearly has legions of fans, it remains somewhere on the periphery of the bluegrass scene. That tenuous relationship may have something to do with two complaints that I sometimes hear muttered when Crooked Still comes up in certain circles, to wit—

1. It Ain’t Bluegrass

No one would make the case that Crooked Still goes after the vaunted “high and lonesome” sound that defines so much of bluegrass, and yes, it’s true that they’ve dispensed with a couple of the iconic instrumental elements of the traditional bluegrass outfit in favor of a…er, cello. That said, if somebody’s keeping a checklist of the attributes of bluegrass, surely Crooked Still’s repertoire fulfills several of the key items: they’re steadfastly acoustic, their rhythms are driven by a propulsive chop, and most importantly their songs are largely drawn from the canon of traditional ballads, hymns and fiddle tunes (“Calvary” is a good illustration of this— a 19th century hymn that came to the band by way of a recording from banjo legend Dock Boggs).

Some folks seem to think that this last attribute aligns the band more with old time music than bluegrass. In truth, the whole old-time-versus-bluegrass debate always depresses me. The style of playing shaped by Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and the other founders of bluegrass was suffused with the ancient musical traditions of the mountains and the British Isles. That being the case, why is a bluegrass band that plays songs by the likes of Merle Haggard somehow more authentic than an outfit like Crooked Still with its contemporary renditions of sea shanties and Appalachian melodies?

I suspect the band itself wouldn’t lose much sleep over this argument. Many of the younger string bands today seem to be taking pains not to affiliate themselves too closely with bluegrass. Perhaps they fear that the label will summon up associations among younger audiences with cornpone sentimentality and weird uncles. If this is in fact the case, it’s a shame. Bluegrass is too young a genre and too marginal a cultural phenomenon to be defined so narrowly. Whether it’s through conservative impulses within the community or stereotypes imposed by ill-informed outsiders, bluegrass can’t afford to get painted into a corner. That’s why I’m saying that Crooked Still and the other ensembles that are redefining string band music are still playing bluegrass, whether they mean to or not.

2. Their Songs All Sound the Same

Okay, don’t shoot the messenger, but this is probably the most common knock against Crooked Still. It’s certainly true that their sound is absolutely distinctive. Whether it’s by a funky groove, a soaring chromatic run on the banjo or a snippet of breathy vocals, it takes all of five seconds to identify a Crooked Still song. It’s also the case that, while the latest album might follow a more programmatic structure than past efforts, all the band’s recorded output has hewed closely to a formula based on catchy modal hooks and elegantly spare arrangements.

But, come on! How many bands ever attain a truly distinctive sound? Indeed, in the grand scheme of things, we tend to remember performers for just one or two traits that were their own (think of Jimmie Rogers’ yodel or Johnny Cash’s flat and haggard tone). I’m sure many a musician looks upon arriving at such a defined sound as having attained the holy grail of performance technique. Once you’ve got your hands on such a rare commodity, why let go?

Perhaps the chief liability to having a unique sound is simply that pickers don’t cover your material. In bluegrass, imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s also the way that music gets disseminated and integrated into the genre. Because of their groundbreaking technique and unorthodox instrumentation, even the band’s most ardent admirers don’t seem tempted to copy its style or substance. But who knows? I’ve seen a lot of young cellists in bluegrass jams of late. Perhaps the musicians who will carry Crooked Still’s mantel are still growing up.

Whatever its drawbacks, the obvious advantage to sticking with a particular sound is that you can keep refining and developing it. Through some key personnel changes over the years, Crooked Still has continued to hone their particular style. That single-mindedness has yielded dividends, both on Some Strange Country and especially in their recent live performances. The best way I can put it is that “they sound like Crooked Still, only more so.” True to their name, they have distilled their sound to its essence and they have achieved that odd mix of tightness and grace that only comes from working on material for a very long time.

All that said, I’d love to hear the band take on new repertoire. Such as…? Well, how about some Merle Haggard? Actually, you don’t have to tax your imagination to get a sense of what Crooked Still might sound like if it expanded its songbook. Several members of the band are involved in side projects. Banjo ace Greg Liszt has fronted a group called The Deadly Gentlemen for the past couple of years. The band is about to release a new album entitled Carry Me To Home. It’s a fascinating, challenging and altogether worthwhile effort that sounds a bit like Crooked Still might if O’Donovan turned the mic over to Eminem. Don’t take my word for it: if you hurry, you can get a free download of the album here.

Yer Pal— Curly

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