Posts Tagged ‘Wayfaring Strangers’

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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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