The Onlies: Young Band on the Rise

Long Before Light
Soft Day Records 003

Within recent memory, grizzled vets of the folk music scene were worried that both performers and audiences were getting too gray for the future health of the music. These days, there is such a wealth of new talent that observers wonder how all these promising upstarts can attract attention in an increasingly crowded field. This is especially vexing given that so many new bands have gravitated to bluegrass and old-time music. Sociologists can probably make a case that nostalgia is attractive when the future is uncertain, but I prefer the simpler explanation that young people are attracted to bluegrass energy, the rhythms of old-time music, and the time-honed gravitas of trad. Enter the Seattle-based trio (and occasional quartet) The Onlies, who specialize in all three and share an additional love of Celtic music.

If there is a single prerequisite for gaining attention, it's that you need to be very good at what you do. Music is like top-drawer spirits; it gets better over time. But wait! The Onlies–guitarist Leo Shannon, fiddler/banjoist Riley Calagno, and fiddler Sami Braman– are still in high school. True, but all three have played together since they were in grade school. And lord knows that they share good role models: Darol Anger, Liz Carroll, Bruce Molsky, Alaisdair Fraser, Brittany Haas, Tommy Jarrell…. Moreover, if the fiddle-centric Long Before Light is any indication, they already possess more poise than many of their elders. The Onlies exercise their interest in Celtic music on "Moll Ha' Penny," a set of two Irish tunes, and again on "Freddy's," a New Breton delicacy written by the late John Morris Rankin. We can also hear Tommy Jarrell's influence on "Cheese Closet," a deliberately raw tune penned by Shannon. He also does a nice job on the old-time standard "Jubilee," a song popularized by Doc Watson. But one of the one precocious things about this album is that 60% of its fifteen tracks are originals. That list includes Colcagno's "Skipping Stones," a lovely little song onto which Braman appends "North Fork," a pick-'em-up-lively fiddle tune of her own composition. Together with sweet harmonies it makes for one of those earworms you're happy to invite into your head. It's emblematic of most of the selections on the album: joyous, earnest, and nimble. Let me address the gorilla in the room, though. Does one also hear youthful inexperience? Mostly no, though there is, of course, room for growth. The harmony singing is much better than the leads at present, and a few of the tunes could benefit from being more adventuresome. Sure. Now ask yourself what you were doing in high school! Then listen to this CD and repeat after me: "The kids are alright. The kids are alright….."
Rob Weir

Here's a YouTube live performance.

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