Posts Tagged ‘Matt Witler’

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Of Bluegrass and Beatlemania

18 October 2013

If you’ve had the pleasure of hearing The Lonely Heartstring Band play a set, then you know that they have widely surveyed the song catalog of Messrs. Lennon and McCartney. This must have made choosing just a handful of these compositions for their new EP a tough call. The record is a hit in my book, but one of my favorite Beatles covers failed to make the cut. I’m therefore pleased to offer it here as something like a bonus track:

Over time, music gets encoded into a culture in two ways: either it gets passed along and reinterpreted as folk music or it gets canonized and transformed into a classical form. As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ first U.S. tour and the efflorescence of Beatlemania stateside, the Fab Four’s legacy remains a work in progress. It’s safe to say that we’ll still be listening to the Beatles in another fifty years, but will we be singing their songs around the campfire or studying them in college?

The notion of some ancient, ink-stained wretch like Yers Truly pondering such a question with regard to the Beatles would have seemed beyond strange to the mobs shaking to “Twist and Shout” in the 1960’s. After all, back then, even the Beatles’ songs moved up and down the charts, enjoying great popularity to be sure, but also eventually being supplanted by the Next Big Thing. That feeling of evanescence is worth keeping in mind as you have a listen to this:

That is the Charles River Valley Boys playing a reunion set at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival (yep, the same event where we shot our videos of the Lonely Heartstring dudes). The venerable group was on hand to receive a Heritage Award from the Boston Bluegrass Union. During the Folk Scare of the early 1960’s, the Charles River Valley Boys were the primary flag bearers for bluegrass in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts. After recording a few albums of straight-ahead bluegrass and traditional string band music, the group got the notion to make a record featuring Beatles tunes done in the style of bluegrass. Thus the album Beatle Country was born.

That was in 1966. Think about it: when the Charles River Valley Boys recorded “Help!”, the song had no comforting patina of nostalgia. At the time, it was simply part of the soundtrack of the moment. So though we recorded our videos with the CRVB and the LHB but a few hours and a couple hundred yards apart, and though they cover many of the same Beatles tunes, we have to imagine that the two groups bring very different perspectives to the music.

Beatle Country was certainly not the first instance of a bluegrass band covering pop songs. As noted bassist, songwriter and journalist Jon Weisberger has pointed out in commenting on one of my earlier posts, “Bluegrass acts were doing songs written or popularized by other acts, including from genres other than country music just about from Day 1.” That said, I’m having a hard time digging up an earlier example of an entire bluegrass record devoted to the work of one pop act. If anyone can point me toward dicographical entries I have missed, I’m all ears. Reno in Vegas: The Rat Pack Meets Bluegrass! has a nice ring to it, or perhaps Cline Time: The Music of Patsy and Curly Ray Cline.

Since the appearance of Beatle Country, this kind of concept album has become a veritable subgenre of bluegrass. Everyone from AC/DC to Journey has gotten the bluegrass treatment. There have been not one but two entire albums devoted to faithfully translating The Moody Blues into The Moody Bluegrass. Back when there were still record stores, our local emporium had a bin devoted just to cover projects such as these.

Whether or not such genre splicing is your cup of tea, I urge you to pay attention to The Lonely Heartstring Band. These guys may be Beatlemaniacs of the first order, but they have too much musical talent and too much of a feel for bluegrass to define themselves strictly as a Beatles cover band. Indeed, the most electrifying track on their EP is their devilish take on “Ole Slew Foot” (which you can download along with the rest of the record from Bandcamp on a pay-what-you-like basis— click here to see details).

“Old Slew Foot” has plenty of bluegrass credibility, having been played by the likes of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, and in the hands of the Lonely Heartstringers, the song sounds like it was brought down from the mountains. But guess what? The earliest recording I’ve found of “Slew Foot” was made by Johnny Horton in the late 1950’s. Horton’s take on the song is pretty much straight-up rockabilly. At the end of the day, then, what defines music as bluegrass has less to do with origins than with sound. Perhaps that’s what Tony Rice (a picker as adventurous and iconoclastic as any) meant when he recently concluded his moving speech at this year’s IBMA awards with this statement: “It’s our duty to allow bluegrass music to grow and flourish and at the same time retain the most important part of it, and that is the essence of the sound of real bluegrass music.”

The performance by the Charles River Valley Boys demonstrates one way that bluegrass continues to “grow and flourish, “ and that’s by families passing the music on from one generation to the next. The “Boys” are joined onstage by Ashley Lilly, the daughter of guitarist Everett Alan Lilly. Everett Alan is in turn the son of Everett Lilly, half of the seminal bluegrass duo The Lilly Brothers. Seeing young Ashley on stage with her dad is a poignant reminder of how few degrees separate any of us from the “true vine” of bluegrass.

Yer Pal— Curly

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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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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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