New Bluegrass: The Riverside, Steep Ravine, Avenhart, Town Meeting, Michael Cleveland

How Blue is Your Bluegrass?

I'm often asked why there are so few young folk musicians these days. I guess the questioners haven't looked too hard because this old land of ours is positively saturated with young 'uns playing bluegrass and flipping the calendar on a genre that, before their arrival, had grown too predictable. Here are just a few recent releases that have come my way.

Bluegrass is so deeply associated with Appalachia that we sometimes forget that California is also a hotbed. A new recording titled Appalachia in the Morning comes from a band called The Riverside that is actually from California. It was formed by six friends and other than their names—Jake Jeanson (guitar), Lorien Jeanson (mandolin), Sarah Organista (bass), Evan Kramer (percussion), and Denise Barbee (banjo)—I can't tell you much about them except that Barbee's banjo is the center of most of their music, though probably not in the way you'd expect. Hers is a quiet and gently paced style that indeed evokes the feel of morning. In fact, this release often feels (in a good way) like you've just shaken enough sleep from your eyes to sashay into the early morning sunlight. Each track is gentle, peaceful, and warm. The songs speak mostly to the idea of finding a safe haven, be it a place, a person, a mental space, or home. Personal favorites include "Lorien Ruth," "Starry Night" and "Appalachia," but everything on the release is inviting and goes down easy. Wish I could say more, but there were no credits available for this release. Note: Don't confuse the above band with a Polish heavy metal band of the same name, or an outfit called Riverside Bluegrass Band. ★★★ ½ 

Another fine California band is Bay Area-based Steep Ravine. They also confound expectations of what bluegrass sounds like. Their winter sampler, a prelude to a new release to be titled Turning of the Fall, is a smooth and contemplative offering that's on the quiet end of the musical spectrum. Lead vocalist/guitarist Simon Linsteadt sets the mood with his mellow tenor, mellow being the dominant mood. "C'mon Home" has accented cadence evocative of traveling down a trail at a slow trot rather than a gallop. In a similar vein, the sweet harmonies of "Daylight in a Jail Cell" put one in mind more of a pleasant morn than a day behind bars. It, like many of the selections, is driven by Jan Purat's fiddle. Purat goes gypsy jazz on "Dark Eyes," appropriate given that he studied at the California Jazz Conservatory. The quartet, which includes bass player Alex Bice and drummer Jeff Wilson, also shows off its jazz influences in the deliberate pacing of their selections. "The White Mare" is the fastest paced song on the sampler, but it too is controlled rather than breakneck. And it's hard to top "Waiting Blues," with its tight harmonies and comfortable melody. ★★★ (Harmonies missing on YouTube clip.) av

Let's stay out West for another intriguing band. Think of a bluegrass with the tranquil vibes of indie favorites The Fleet Foxes mixed with the inventive newgrass of Tony Rice and you have a good approximation of Avenhart. Avenhart is also the name of this Denver-based sextet's debut EP. The four songs on the EP all address the fragility of love. "Fade Away" uses an acoustic guitar/banjo intro to create ambience that is both bittersweet and smooth. Banjo player Phil Heifferon's lead vocals sometimes remind me of Paul McKenna's in their polish, but with an edge that's part husk and part whisper. "Fade Away," like the other three tracks, has a lovely melody. Will love endure, or will it burn too bright and fade away? The setting is perfect for such a song. "If I Go" has a peaceful feel, but also sounds a warning: "I ain't never coming back, if I go." In "Enough," that same message is stamped with sorrow: "I never want to see you again/No matter how much I do." All of the songs are instrumentally graced by the mandolin of Alex Drapela, Alex Goldberg's bass, Payden Widner's guitar, the fiddle of Olivia Shaw, and the guitar of Andrea Pares—the latter two of whom lend lovely harmonizing vocals. My only brief against this fine band is that I'm not sure that the spirited instrumental breakout works on a will-she-call song as frangible as "Madeline." You should sample this band; there is much to love. ★★★★

Venturing east to Massachusetts, Town Meeting is a scrap-yard band, a deliberately raw mix of country, folk, blues, and bluegrass, with lots of backwoods gospel influence. I call it scrap-yard for the minimalist string band approach to the instrumentation in most of its selection. And there’s this: the release title, If I Die, alerts that their repertoire is heavy on songs about death. Some, like “Time,” are upbeat—a sort of rockabilly/skiffle hybrid powered by Brendan Condon’s craggy vocals and instrumental breakdown energy. Although this quintet is from the Central Mass town of Ayer, on “Verge” you’d swear they must hail from the Southern Appalachians. By contrast, “Missionary Street” has some strong blues harmonica and the song sounds like Paul Simon checked into the “St. James Infirmary,” “Wash My Hands” has an Everly Brothers vibe, and “Digging" is retro outlaw country. In my view, the band overdoes “not afraid to die” material and could do with a dollop of sheen to smooth overly rough edges, but sample them on NoiseTrade and see what you think. ★★ ½

Michael Cleveland was a child prodigy who first appeared at the Grand Ole Opry at the tender age of 13. Since then he's won enough awards to fill a duplex, including 10 IBMA fiddler-of-the-year honors. Fiddler's Dream (Compass) has a delightful nostalgic feel—as if it were an old-time radio show. The tone is set by the title track, a standard that was originally an Arthur Smith tune. Cleveland goes into full hoedown mode, dueling with the banjo like he's in a race with the Devil. He prefers the full-tilt approach, which we hear also on "Henryville," "Sunday Drive," "Earl Park," and the deceptively named "Northeast Seaboard Blues." There's not a hint of newgrass on this recording; Cleveland opts for the Old School formula of setting supercharged melodies and breakout solos—sometimes mandolin, sometimes banjo, sometimes flat-picked guitar—and he brings them home with his flying fiddle. Think you're a good dancer? I defy you to keep up with Cleveland's duet with Jason Carter on "Tall Timber." Cleveland stays in the old-timey mode for a delightful cover of the John Hartford staple "Steamboat WhistleBlues," featuring Sam Bush on vocals. There's also the sweeter touch of "I Knew Her Yesterday," and the melancholic feel of "The Lonesome Desert." The only cut that didn't knock my socks off was the concluding "Nashville Storms," in which the musicians noodle around hoping for a soup to appear, but it says it all when a reviewer's only complaint is of the bonus track.★★★★ ½

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Avenhart on Youtube