Posts Tagged ‘mandolin’

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Curly’s College Bowl: Define “Hegemonic”

13 June 2013

As we demonstrated in an earlier post, The Lonely Heartstring Band really lit up the hallways and stages of The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival last winter with their deft interpretations of the Beatles catalogue (intermingled with the occasional classic bluegrass number). Here’s another song from the Fab Five:

The music of the Beatles, whatever the genre, has a special and irresistible pull. You’ll notice folks poking around in the background of the videos we shot with The Lonely Heartstring dudes, and there’s a reason for that: people are drawn to these familiar songs and the band’s elegant musicianship like iron filings to a magnet.

Such good vibrations notwithstanding, there have always been and continue to be plenty of skeptics out there when it comes to mixing bluegrass and pop. My friend Emily Marcus recently posted some observations on the Facebook about the bluegrass the music service Spotify was offering up. She got a lot of props when she ventured that “most songs are NOT better done ‘bluegrass style’ (i.e.: Metallica & Green Day are plenty awful all by themselves…).”

We all know where Emily is coming from. As a rule, a bad song is a bad song is a bad song. Yet sometimes the very act of translating a song from one genre to another can reveal qualities that were hidden in the original form (see Richard Thompson’s acoustic rendition of Britney Spear’s “Oops, I Did It Again”). Moreover, it’s also true that a good song is a good song is a good song. It’s hardly worth pointing out that many a bluegrass classic started out life in a different musical style (see Del McCoury and the boys’ take on Richard Thompson’s “Vincent Black Lightning 1952”).

I suspect that what turns Emily & Company off about Metallica and Green Day isn’t just the quality of their songwriting but the sheer pervasiveness of their music. What makes Metallica, Green Day and any other commercial act you care to list “plenty awful” is partly that you can’t get away from them. If you listen to bluegrass and acoustic music as an antidote to the soundscape defined by The Music Industry, then naturally you aren’t going to be very happy when that mainstream, hegemonic musical industrial complex starts to infiltrate your place of refuge.

In the olden days, if you liked a song and wanted to replicate it, you had play it or sing it, and in doing so, you gave the tune your own particular spin. The music that arose from this chain of dissemination was a group effort, quite literally a “folk” product. Since the advent of mechanical reproduction and mass distribution, however, mere popularity is no longer measure of a song’s long-term cultural resonance. After all, by that yardstick, “Gangnam Style” is today’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

Jeff Boudreau, the Boston-based music impresario and director of the notloB Parlour Concerts and Lord Geoffrey Presents Series laments how many bluegrass acts incorporate pop tunes into their set lists. “OK, they were influenced by pop growing up,” writes Boudreau. “Does that mean in a couple years we will be hearing bluegrass covers of Lada Gaga?”

The degree to which you chafe at the notion of bluegrass covers of “Born This Way” is probably a good indicator of the degree to which you see bluegrass as part of— or apart from— the contemporary music market. If you consider bluegrass to be a vestige of what Greil Marcus famously described as the “Old, Weird America,” then you’ll resist anything that smacks of homogenization.

I’m not hostile to the notion of bluegrass and old time music as a preserve for all things weird, organic and bent, but I also think that the Beatles in particular pose an interesting challenge to any attempt to draw a bright line between the mainstream and its alternatives. On the one hand, it’s hard to think of a musical act that’s more ingrained into the fabric of the “dominant culture” than the Beatles. To coin a phrase, their work is truly “here, there and everywhere.” Even so, the band and their music haven’t become completely commodified.

This is due in part to the care the musicians and their heirs have taken in protecting their legacy, but it also has something to do with the music itself. As anyone who has played through transcriptions of Beatles’ tunes will know, many are quite difficult and unpredictable. The song featured in the clip above, George Harrison’s composition “Something,” is as good an illustration of this as any. For every straight-ahead rock n’ roll composition they wrote, they penned another three that were rooted in other musical traditions. The group gathered the sounds from the Edwardian music hall, Indian ragas, country music and elsewhere, then combined them with their own patented, idiosyncratic chord progressions to create a body of work that was and is astoundingly varied and complex.

All that might sound like a good argument against using the Beatles as the basis for bluegrass, or vice versa— ye olde “too many chords for bluegrass” complaint. However, couldn’t the case also be made that it’s the very complexity and strangeness of their music that makes it an easy fit with the traditional string band? This might not be “Old, Weird America,” but it’s “Old, Weird Something-or-Other.”

Yer Pal— Curly

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Bobby Britt & Town Mountain: Four Miles

10 May 2013

Fiddle tunes are musical DNA. Like our genetic code, they recombine the same twelve notes in nearly endless permutations and they’re passed down to us through the ages, weaving together far-flung ancestral strands. While they are potent vessels for conveying our heritage, fiddle tunes are by no means an historical or archaic musical form. Great fiddle tunes are still being written all the time. To kick off our new video series, Curly’s Wide Word of Fiddle Tunes, here’s a prime example of a contemporary composition that extends the tradition:

Catchy as all get out, isn’t it? That’s the exciting young band, Town Mountain, featuring an original fiddle tune penned by their fiddler, Bobby Britt. The performance is from this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.

Bluegrass was built on a foundation of fiddle tunes. The father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, always said as much. Monroe could be parsimonious when it came to sharing credit, but he was always fulsome in acknowledging the debt his music owed to two fiddling forbearers, his uncle Pen Vandiver and Arnold Schultz. Vandiver was a relative and a neighbor of Monroe’s; Schultz was an itinerant African-American musician. Each in his turn helped introduce young Bill to the vast canon of fiddle tunes. These traditional melodies, some locally produced, many imported from the British Isles and Europe, were the popular dance music of the day in Appalachia. Many of the songs that Monroe subsequently wrote borrowed phrases from these tunes, and of course Monroe always interspersed vocal numbers with plenty of original and traditional fiddle tunes. Town Mountain and most contemporary bluegrass acts carry on this practice of leavening their set lists with fiddle tunes.

Britt relayed a poignant story behind the writing of “Four Miles.” About three years ago, he was recovering from surgery and had a couple of weeks of time on his hands, so he decided to make use of it by writing his first-ever fiddle tune. The title is a play on the phrase “For Miles.” Britt’s girlfriend had a brother named Miles who passed away. Miles loved bluegrass, so Britt penned the tune in his honor.

As Britt’s composition demonstrates, fiddle tunes have an elemental quality that makes them timeless. “Four Miles” fits right into the tradition, taking its place on the shelf between “Fire on the Mountain” and “Frosty Morning.” *

Britt hails from North Carolina, but he is currently studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston where he works with master fiddler/teacher/arranger Darol Anger, among others. Britt recently received The Fletcher Bright Award at Berklee, the largest award in the school’s American Roots Music Program. “I am extremely honored and grateful for this award,” reports Britt, adding that it “will help make it possible for me to finish my degree at Berklee.” This is a neat detail, because while Bright made his money in real estate development, he is known in musical circles for his unfathomable repertoire of…fiddle tunes! By supporting Britt’s studies, Bright is insuring that the wellspring of good tunes will never run dry.

“Four Miles” is on Town Mountain’s latest release on Pinecastle Records, “Leave The Bottle.” We’ll be offering up some further selections from Town Mountain in the weeks ahead, as well as many more fiddle tunes from far and wide.

Yer Pal— Curly

* Before the Fiddle Police write, I know that I’m cheating with my alphabetization: the full title is “Cold Frosty Morning.”

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Introducing The Lonely Heartstring Band

25 April 2013

The Facebook page for The Lonely Heartstring Band states the facts succinctly: “We like the bluegrass music. We like The Beatles.” A couple of months back, we caught up with the LHB in the hallways of the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. The Fab Five were practicing for their debut set at the fest. As you can hear, they were in fine form:

What we have here is a convergence of late and early: late Beatles; early Lonely Heartstring. The LHB consists of George Clements (guitar), Matt Witler (mandolin), Gabe Hirshfeld (banjo), Patrick M’Gonigle (fiddle) and Louis Fram (bass). These guys met at Berklee College of Music in Boston. They had all played in various combinations in and outside of school settings, but last year, they decided to explore their mutual fascination with bluegrass and the Beatles. What started out as a whim quickly evolved into a going concern.

Bluegrassers have been playing Beatles tunes practically since Lennon and McCartney first hit the charts. We’ll review this longstanding symbiosis in greater detail in coming weeks. A distinguishing aspect of the LRB approach to Beatles material is that the band hews as closely as possible to the original arrangements. That’s what makes listening to them so much fun: we all know those harmonies and solos by rote, but when they are transposed so precisely into other voices and instruments we get to hear them anew.

A Lonely Heartstring show isn’t just Beatlemania Unplugged. These guys know their way around bluegrass and always feature at least a couple of tunes from the traditional canon in each set. If you are in the Greater Boston area this week, you can sample the full LHB menu, since the band will be playing at the Boston Bluegrass Union’s Springfest event on Saturday at The Second Church in West Newton. Doors open at 5:30. Verily, it will be a hard day’s night.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— At Second Cousin Curly’s World Headquarters, we’ve been tinkering lately with our recipe for streaming video. We want to give you not just the best quality videos, but also the best possible delivery of those videos. If you find that the video clip above doesn’t play smoothly, try the Vimeo version. We appreciate reports from anyone having problems with playback.

P.P.S.— Hats off to Adam Lawrence for the fine editing job on the video, and thanks to our fine camera team at Joe Val: Phoebe Waldron, Christian Trapp and Bill Politis.

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Homespun Harmonies from The Corey Zink Band

17 April 2013

To quote the great bard Anonymous: “’Spring has sprung, the grass is ris./ I wonders where the birdies is.” Yes, here in Boston, we are going through the three-day pageant New Englanders call “Spring”— a cruel joke for us transplants from warmer climes. Before we get too comfortable leaving the house with but a single layer of down, here’s a souvenir of a season New England pulls off with gusto:

That’s The Corey Zink Band performing “City Folks Call Us Poor” at a day-long mini-fest in the Berkshires a couple of months ago. Bluegrass veteran Larry Sparks recorded the song some eight years back. Spark’s recording is the first instance where the tune comes onto my radar, but any information on it from our loyal readers is welcome. As you can see from the video, the song’s lyrics paint a vivid picture of rural contentment that fits well with the warm, down-home atmosphere at the Berkshire event.

So endeth our brief winter idyll. Those of you who are country folk can now get back to tilling the loam while we poor city slickers await that true sign of warmer days: the first iced latte.

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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Berkshire Postcard: The Corey Zink Band

22 March 2013

Winter may be the season for woodshedding those fiddle tunes, but if you stay huddled by the stove too long, you’ll go stir crazy. Up in the Berkshire Mountains, the local bluegrass community understands this, so for years now, they’ve turned out in force in the depths of winter for an indoor picnic featuring several New England bands. This year’s event took place within the cozy confines of the VFW Post in Dalton, Massachusetts. It was dubbed The Corey Zink Band Concert Series in recognition of the guiding role Berkshire native Zink plays as both performer and impresario. Here’s a video that we hope captures the flavor of the show and the character of Zink’s band:

Stepping through the threshold at the Dalton VFW Post is a little disorienting. From the basement bar to the portraits of past leaders on the walls, the setting seems largely untouched by the past half century. Then you look over at the stage, and there’s Corey Zink, sporting a crisp suit and a crew cut and singing a country song that was last climbing the charts when JFK was president. It’s a “Back to the Future” experience, no supercharged DeLorean needed.

The tune Zink and the band are playing is “Another Day, Another Dollar,” by Wynn Stewart. Along with the likes of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, Stewart was an architect of the Bakersfield Sound, a hard-driving, honky tonk-flavored style of country music that flourished in the 1960’s. Adapting that sound to bluegrass is nothing new— folks like J.D. Crowe were doing it back when the original recordings were hot off the presses— but traditionalists like Zink are cementing the connection between that bygone era and the bluegrass canon.

The Corey Zink Band (Zink on guitar, Larry Neu on banjo, John Roc on mandolin and Ray Evans on bass) is still a relatively young unit, but because several of its members played together previously in the group Acoustic Blue, they have a comfortable rapport both with each other, the audience and their material. Mandolin player John Roc is the most recent addition, having just joined the band last fall, but his decades of experience show in the ease with which he fits into the band’s arrangements.

We’ve got more souvenirs from our frosty and rustic road trip coming up, so set yer GPS for this site and circle back often.

Yer Pal—Curly

P.S.— Truth in advertising: “Another Day, Another Dollar” is a vintage number, but it has come back on the radar in popular culture in recent years thanks to Volkswagen featuring it in a Jetta commercial a few years back. So perhaps rather than taking us back in time, Zink & Co. are actually engaged in some postmodern neo-retro hipsterism? No chance— these guys’ old school approach isn’t a passing fancy; it’s a way of life.

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Going Flatt Out At Joe Val

20 February 2013

So there I was this past week, seated in the green room of The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. It had been a long weekend already, and it was only Saturday evening. The Joe Val Fest takes place under one roof— that would be the Mock Tudor palace known as ye olde Framingham Sheraton— but it can feel like a very large roof. Between catching acts on the main stage and in the Showcase room downstairs, catching up with friends in the hallways and sitting in on the occasional jam on the “picking floors” of the hotel, yer cousin Curly was feeling a tad peaked. I set my recording gear down, intending just to catch my breath for a moment, but soon I found my lids getting heavy. Next thing I knew, I was having sweet, bluegrass-tinged dreams…

As you can see, in my reverie, I am still at Joe Val, but it’s one year earlier. Spooky! My crew and I are passing through the hotel lobby, when suddenly— in one of those splices of time and place that can happen in a dream— one of the main stage acts appears, and they’re playing away. It’s Flatt Lonesome, a new act with old roots. As you can hear, the group draws from the wellspring of traditional bluegrass and country music. Half of the ensemble— Kelsi, Charli and Buddy Robertson— are siblings who grew up playing bluegrass and gospel in a family band. In 2011, this trio teamed up with friends Dominic Illingworth, Michael Stockton, and Paul Harrigill and Flatt Lonesome was born.

The band has had a busy year since their appearance at the 2012 Joe Val Festival. In September, Kelsi and Paul got married, and just a couple of weeks ago, the group released its first album. The song featured in the clip— I mean in my dream— is the lead-off track on the album, “You’ll Get No More of Me.”

Regular readers will know that I am not dogmatic when it comes to matters of style. I’m okay with a vocalist bringing jazz and folk inflection to their singing of bluegrass and old time tunes. That said, it’s refreshing to encounter two young women like Kelsi Robertson Harrigill and Charli Robertson who can— for want of a better term— belt it out, old school.

I was savoring Kelsi and Charli’s bracing harmonies when another high-pitched tone bored into my slumbering consciousness. I opened my eyes, and there I was, back in the Joe Val green room, only now seated before me was a cowboy in a black Stetson. As for that high-pitched sound, well…

That is musician Alan Kaufman on the right and filmmaker Bill Politis on the left. In addition to being “the Yoda of Yodeling,” Kaufman is the fiddler in the bluegrass band Flatt Rabbit, which played at this year’s Joe Val Fest. Yup— Flatt Lonesome and Flatt Rabbit. Very, very eerie. The rabbit reference could make you believe Lewis Carroll had a hand in this scenario. In the coming weeks and months, we’re going to have some excellent video of Flatt Rabbit in action, along with tons of other good stuff from Joe Val 2013, so don’t wander off. In the meantime, I’ve gotta get some sleep…

Yer Pal— Curly

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