Posts Tagged ‘Jens Kruger’

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The Kruger Brothers Get On The Gospel Train

21 June 2012

This week, we conclude our gospel triptych with a nugget from the vault. You know how you sometimes read in the paper about postcards that get lost in the mail, only to arrive at their intended address years later? Well, something like that happened with this video postcard from MerleFest— MerleFest 2010, that is. Fortunately, the message is timeless. Have a look:

This video underscores a point made in our last episode— that the black gospel tradition has a greater influence in bluegrass today than once was the case. Talk about crossing cultural borders! Here we have a pair of brothers from Switzerland— that would be the Kruger Brothers, Uwe and Jens— playing a gospel song by an African-American soul maestro— Curtis Mayfield.

What is about trains and salvation anyway? How is it that, in relatively short order, the locomotive went from being the noisy emblem of the industrial age to supplanting the chariot as the preferred conveyance to the pearly gates? I note that the Interstate Highway System has been around for more than fifty years, but nobody’s taking I-40 to heaven.

Remembering Doc

That mysterious train carried Doc Watson away recently. Like everybody who loves traditional music, it seems, he touched me directly. One of my earliest memories of hearing bluegrass performed live was when I heard Doc and his son Merle play a concert at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill, NC. They were at once totally down to earth and out of this world.

MerleFest, the annual music extravaganza in Wilkesboro, NC, honors Merle Watson, who died in an accident in 1985. Doc Watson was a guiding light behind the festival, and the last time I saw Doc was at the 2010 edition of Merlefest. I offer this video postcard from that event as a modest memorial to a great musical pioneer.

Yer Pal— Curly

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All We Are Saying Is Give Banjos A Chance

25 September 2011

Over the past few months, there has been some interesting to and fro in the letters section of Bluegrass Unlimited about the rising number of bluegrass bands without a fiddler (see postscript below). To be honest, up here in the Frozen North, where many folks come to bluegrass from Celtic music (an even more fiddle-based tradition) or classical training (ditto), I have not detected VFS (Vanishing Fiddler Syndrome) in our area. Banjos, on the other hand, seem to be on the endangered list. That’s right: banjos— for many the bedrock of bluegrass— appear to be an increasingly scarce commodity. We may well be in the midst of a Vanishing Banjo Syndrome outbreak and nobody seems to notice but Yers Truly. Somebody sound the alarm! Make some noise!! Wait a sec: how do you make a racket without banjos?

Not playing the banjo myself, the next best thing I can do to address the banjo shortage is to use this platform to champion five-string masters. I have done this over the past months with posts celebrating the work of Jens Kruger and Tony Trischka. Even so, judging by recent jams I’ve sampled, my efforts have done little to forestall the advance of VBS. Clearly, it’s time to up the ante. Suppose we lived in an alternate universe, one in which all bluegrass bands were required to be composed of no less than fifty percent banjos. What would that sound like? Have a listen…

That is Hot Mustard, the New England bluegrass outfit whose motto is “Two banjos, no waiting!” As I recounted in my previous showcase entry on the group, I heard Hot Mustard before I set eyes on them, and so natural and integrated was their sound that it was only after watching them perform for a while that I noticed the unusual line-up: two banjos, guitar and bass. As they ably demonstrate, given the right degree of taste and control, you can’t have too much of a good thing. And for those of you concerned about VFS, Bill Jubett occasionally puts down his banjo and plays some fiddle, too.

This video features one of the greatest banjo tunes, “Clinch Mountain Backstep.” The quirk that sets it apart from a gazillion other instrumental numbers is the extra beat that gets thrown in halfway through the B part, a feature that makes it what is sometimes called a “crooked” tune. The song was recorded as an instrumental by the Stanley Brothers way back in 1959, but as with much of the Stanley Brothers’ material, the melody sounds much older than that. Alan Jabbour, in his notes on the magisterial collection of fiddle tunes he collected from old time master Henry Reed, posits that “Clinch Mountain Backstep” is an adaptation of a nameless breakdown that Reed said was “old as the mountains.”

You can listen to Reed’s breakdown here and decide if you agree that it’s an antecedent to the Stanley Brothers’ tune. Whatever your verdict, I suspect you’ll agree that it’s the Stanleys’ version that has entered the bluegrass canon. Interestingly, Hot Mustard’s take on “Clinch Mountain Backstep” owes at least as much to Earl Scruggs banjo style as it does to that of Ralph Stanley. There was a time when Scruggs and Stanley defined two distinct approaches to the banjo, the former pioneering a hard-driving three-fingered technique while the latter held onto a sound anchored in the clawhammer tradition. In bringing a style derived more from Scruggs to “Clinch Mountain Backstep,” Hot Mustard’s dual banjoists, Bruce Stockwell and Bill Jubett, emphasize how much common ground there is in these various techniques.

For anyone familiar with the dozens of recorded versions of “Clinch Mountain,” the slow and spare vocal intro, written and sung by April Jubett, will come as a surprise. Those moody a cappella verses at the outset make the first salvo from Bill’s banjo sound like a clarion call. The tune gets even more of an adrenaline charge when Bill passes off to his mentor Bruce.

It all sounds great, which leads us back to the problem I raised at the outset: whither the banjers? Did somebody finally tell one too many banjo jokes? Folks, we didn’t mean it— come on back!

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— My favorite contribution to the VFS conversation in Bluegrass Unlimited so far was from John Mahoney of Strasburg, VA. In the September issue, Mahoney— who himself laments the disappearance of fiddlers from the scene— says that one explanation for the phenomenon given to him by bandleaders was that “fiddle players are idiots and hard to get along with.” I would beseech any of my fiddling brethren with anger management issues to keep in mind that these are not the views of Mr. Mahoney or Yers Truly.

P.P.S.— The traditional music site Mudcat Café has an old thread regarding the meaning of “backstep” as it applies to music or dance. The many clever thread participants are unable to verify that any maneuver from square dancing or other American folk dance idioms has an explicit connection to the Stanley Brothers’ famously “crooked” tune. I have also been unable to dig up any evidence that “backstep” applies to a particular type of tune, à la jig or reel. If anybody knows different, let us know!

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Can’t You Hear Them Banjos Ringin’?

13 May 2010

After attending this evening’s Banjo Extravaganza, perhaps I’ll have a new favorite banjo player or three to crow about.  For now, however, I’m pretty high on Jens Kruger who, together with his guitar-wielding brother Uwe and bassist Joel Landsberg, form the Kruger Brothers.  The Swiss-born Krugers have built up avid followings both in Europe and in their adopted home of North Carolina.  Make that a rabid following— listen for that guy barking out “Uwe!” and “Jens!” behind me on the clip below.  He was…well, a committed listener.

Anyway, Jens is certainly no secret in the world of roots music.  If I’m not mistaken, he was the only player from outside the band to accompany The Waybacks throughout their “Hillside Album Hour” performance of “Abbey Road” at Merlefest this year.  Other performers came and went, but Jens was on stage from start to finish, insinuating himself into all those familiar tunes so gracefully as to make you think that they had been composed with the banjo in mind.

It’s precisely Kruger’s blend of technical wizardry and musical taste that make him a joy to hear on his own and an asset to any ensemble.  Check out his approach to that old crowd-pleaser, “Sixteen Tons:”

Having made such a fuss about the addition of drums to bluegrass ensembles, I’ll be the first to admit that this clip doesn’t help sell my cause. The thud of the percussion sounds great here, where a big, greasy beat is entirely called for.

Would love to  hear some banjo players’ assessments of the current state of five string playing, from Scott Vestal to Béla Fleck to Greg Liszt.

Yer Pal— Curly

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