Posts Tagged ‘Matt Glaser’

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Buck White: “Sui Generis”

8 March 2012

We shot a ton of great stuff at this year’s The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. As is always the case, a lot of the most magical experiences were products of pure serendipity. Here’s a moment we caught backstage…

The gentleman on mandolin is Buck White, Grand Ole Opry member and pater familias of the country/bluegrass/swing outfit The Whites. He’s playing with fiddler Matt Glaser, Artistic Director of Berklee College of Music’s American Roots Music Program. White and Glaser are later joined by Charlie Rose, a versatile Boston-based musician who plays with everybody who is anybody.

Although he has shared the stage with some of the very top bluegrass musicians (dobro star Jerry Douglas was a member of his band for several years, and Ricky Skaggs is his son-in-law), White is really an example of a performer who comes to bluegrass by way of other genres. As he mentions in talking with Glaser, growing up in Texas, he wasn’t surrounded by bluegrass. A lot of the influences that shaped his music were more homegrown, which of course means he was exposed to a healthy dose of Texas swing. Here’s an example of that infectious musical style from The Whites main stage set at Joe Val. Buck is joined here by daughters Cheryl (bass) and Sharon (guitar). The tune is “My Window Faces the South,” a song popularized by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

Whether watching Buck White on stage or behind the scenes, it’s hard to believe this is an octogenarian at work. This is a legend who is still very much living it up!

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Thanks to Megan Lovallo for the fine editing.

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Remembering Kenny Baker at Grey Fox

28 July 2011

The great fiddler Kenny Baker died on July 8th. Exactly one week later, the ad hoc Kenny Baker Memorial Orchestra assembled on the main stage at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival to “play homage” to this titan of American musican. The “orchestra” was the brainchild of Matt Glaser, himself a renowned fiddler and a guiding light of the American Roots Music Program at Berklee College of Music.

Since the Grey Fox program was already in place long before Baker passed, there wasn’t a block of time available for a full-blown tribute. Glaser and company therefore had to make the most of a brief interlude on Friday afternoon between sets by Michael Cleveland and Tim O’Brien.

The assembled multitude managed to pack four tunes into ten minutes. In my view, the heart of the medley was the second tune, “Cross-eyed Fiddler,” a Baker original, appropriately enough. Have a look and a listen…

Now, without clicking “replay,” how many of the performers can you name? If you’re from New England, chances are you recognize a face or two, as many are based in the region. With the likes of Baker and Hazel Dickens leaving the stage, and with players like O’Brien, Cleveland and Glaser well established in their careers, it’s time for a new generation of players to make their marks. Most of the performers in the “orchestra” are in their twenties; many are in highly regarded bands such as The Deadly Gentlemen, Della Mae or the Red Stick Ramblers. For those of you who haven’t updated your Who’s Who in Bluegrass lately, I’m providing, free of charge, the following video guide. This clip shows the entire Baker tribute medley, with the bonus feature that all players are identified. See how many pickers you can I.D. before their names show up on screen. Extra points if you can pick out the musician who is also an MD specializing in Emergency Medicine.

Only a stone could resist being moved by that last image of the players filing out to “The Dead March,” finally leaving just Cleveland on stage, like a solitary candle. Wish I could tell you more about “The Dead March.” It’s a late Monroe composition, a tune Glaser said that the Father of Bluegrass “remembered,” but I haven’t been able to dig up much beyond that. I suspect that as many people know the tune from a celebrated television performance by the meteoric supergroup Muleskinner as from any of Monroe’s recordings.

“The Dead March” is a keeper, but in the end, it’s “Cross-Eyed Fiddler” that really sticks with me. This seems a hugely underappreciated fiddle tune. It’s not an old composition and it’s under copyright, but those conditions haven’t kept other tunes (“Rebecca,” “Ashokan Farewell,” “Josephine’s Waltz”) from entering the fiddling canon. Perhaps it’s the title that holds it back— “Cross-Eyed Fiddler” doesn’t seem to fit its jaunty tone.

In any event, I love how the players at Grey Fox really get into the swing of the tune. You can see them all, little by little, put their bodies into it, swaying and bouncing to the melody. One of the things that made Baker a great musician— perhaps the thing— was that there was at once a looseness and formality to both his playing and his compositions. If you’ve ever seen a photograph or a video of Baker, there’s a kind of severity to the way he carried himself. He had this ramrod-straight posture, and no one— not even Bill Monroe— looked meaner in a perfectly blocked cowboy hat. His playing had a definite precision, too, but look closer and you can see how relaxed his technique remained, even when playing at speed. Like so many master musicians, he made it look easy.

Many people feel that to say that he “co-wrote” the classic tune “Jerusalem Ridge” with Monroe is to give Baker too little credit. Whatever the case, if you compare how he plays the tune to the whole host of subsequent renditions, what stands out is how spare and clean his version is. Every motion of the bow is like a punctuation mark. At the same time, however, was there ever a more baroque and passionate fiddle tune than this? There it is: the marriage of contradictions so often found in great art. For the philosophers following along at home, you could say that while there was much that was Apollonian in Baker’s demeanor and bearing, a Dionysian side always came out in his music. Whatever wonders future generations of musicians have to offer us, we will miss Kenny Baker.

A Word or Two More On Grey Fox

The biggest no-show at Grey Fox this year was not Peter Rowan, who managed to make it, albeit a little later than expected. No, the big no-show was the colossal, end-of-time rain storm that shows up like clockwork— except when it doesn’t. Even the storm’s usual sidekick, Insufferable Heat, barely stopped by. This, combined with the usual strong line-up and the off-the-hook campsite jams, made for a glorious festival. But don’t take my word for it: in a bid to put me out of business, Grey Fox has really ramped up its online media. Check out the festival blog for boatloads of videos. I’m particularly impressed by— and partial to— the several videos that capture the campsite jams. As we all know, some of the best playing goes on in these informal gatherings, and the experience is even more ephemeral than a live concert. After all, Del McCoury and his boys will play together another day, but most jams are fleeting hook-ups, so to speak. Those of us who care about this stuff need to do a better job of documenting these magical moments. Hats off to the media crew at Grey Fox for its progress on that front.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S. The Emergency Medicine specialist is Kalev Freeman, one of the fiddlers lurking in the rear on the right side of the stage.

P.P.S. Thanks to Nick DiSebastian, Ben Pearce, Fred Robbins, Mary Burdette and Matt Glaser for their scholarly assistance.

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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: 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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