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


I Am Not Your Negro (Sadly) Remains Relevant

Directed by Raoul Peck
Magnolia Pictures, 93 minutes, PG-13 (language, brief nudity)

Incredibly, there are still those who ask why so much attention is paid to race. This ought to be self-evident in the age of Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, but I can think of few more poignant ways of explaining why race matters than Raoul Peck's documentary I Am Not Your Negro*. It is a look at playwright, novelist, and poet James Baldwin, who was also one of the sharpest and smartest social critics of his day. Therein lies a tale of its own; Baldwin's day was 1924 to 1987 and the fact that we wrestle with the same crap with which Baldwin grappled thirty years after his passing is a searing indictment of American society.I Am Not Yur Negor

The film is loosely based on Baldwin's Remember This House, his planned remembrance of three martyrs he knew well: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin had finished just 30 pages of this book at the time of his death**, so this film isn't really about these three individuals as much as it is a reflection on what Gunnar Myrdal dubbed An American Dilemma back in 1944: race and racism. Peck's film is a pastiche of words from Baldwin himself, Samuel L. Jackson's narration, and archival footage—some of which features many of Baldwin's friends and associates: Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Lorraine Hansberry, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier and others.  But Baldwin didn't even spare friends; he insisted, for example, that most of Poitier's films were a bromide for white audiences. Baldwin also noted that American "entertainment is often difficult to distinguish from the use of narcotics," a phrase Peck uses to buckshot his film sprays of images such as a Doris Day film clip followed by Baldwin's trenchant thoughts on school desegregation and archival photographs of Little Rock in 1957. There are also snippets of Hollywood embarrassments such as Dance, Fools, Dance and Uncle Tom's Cabin.  

One of the film's unintentional spotlights is cast upon the dumbing down of American culture. There is footage from The Dick Cavett Show that makes this painfully clear. Watch any (non-PBS) talk show of your choice and ask yourself when was the last time it devoted an entire segment to someone with the articulate genius of James Baldwin, gave that individual free rein to deliver an unvarnished indictment of American society, and then introduced a Yale philosophy professor to comment upon it! (Okay, that guest, Professor Paul Weiss, was a pompous ass, but really—who does this anymore? Surely not Jimmy Fallon or Seth Myers.)

I Am Not Your Negro is not a perfect film. As noted, it isn't really based very much on Remember This House because thirty pages isn't much to go on. Whether Peck's structure is a brilliant patch job or a chaotic jumble probably depends upon the age of viewers and their familiarity with the people, events, and references flashing on the screen. In a controversial move, Peck completely ignored Baldwin's homosexuality. It's contentious whether doing so was an inexcusable obliteration or a wise choice that kept the focus on race. It is, however, completely fair to take Peck to task for suggesting that Malcolm X's assassination was a direct result of white racism. Malcolm was, indeed, often the subject of white ire, but his 1965 murder was at the hands of the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim group. ***   

Still, I Am Not Your Negro is a powerful look at white privilege. Baldwin's charge that "This is not the land of the free" is, tragically, as true then as now. There is a telling moment near the end of the film in which he claims, "I can't be a pessimist because I am alive. I'm forced to be an optimist." Yet Baldwin's worn countenance, his heavy sighs, his arched eyebrow, and his resort to scolding are the marks of a prematurely aged fighter who has taken enough blows for one lifetime. Still, all Americans should feel the sting his punishing left hook: "What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I'm not a nigger, I'm a man, but if you think I'm a nigger, it means you need it." 

Rob Weir

* For younger readers, "Negro" was the preferred term for African Americans in post-World War Two America until around 1974, when it was supplanted by the term "black." The "Black Power" movement of the late 1960s and James Brown's 1968 hit single, "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" were instrumental in shifting language in ways consonant with black-generated cultural identities, but it took a while for these to shake their associations with fringe radicalism.  

** When Baldwin died, his publisher, McGraw Hill, attempted to sue his estate for the return of a $200,000 advance. This suit was dropped in 1990, an outcome occasioned by public outcry and negative publicity. 

*** Malcolm X was a Nation of Islam loyalist until a 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca, which convinced him that the exclusivity of Black Muslims was wrong, as was their assumption that all non-whites were racist. He became a universalist Sunni Muslim, thereby infuriating the Nation of Islam. 


Gaiman's Snarky Norse Mythology Works

Neil Gaiman
Norton, 281 pages

If I Had a Hammer...
Like many kids of yore, I devoured tales of Greek gods, dragons, ghouls, and monsters. Of all the tales, though, I especially loved Norse mythology. I’m sure that Mighty Thor comic books had something to do with it, but I think it was also because there’s something more “human” about the Asgard gods. To be sure, the Greek Olympians were every bit as flawed, lusty, and petty as Norse deities, but they were also more aloof—more like bickering philosophers than exaggerated versions of people you might actually know. By contrast, Odin was a one-eyed usurper who overthrew the Frost Giants, and his bearded, cloaked, slouch-hatted appearance made him seem more like a wizard than a god. He often missed things with just that one eye, so there was plenty of mischief opportunity for Loki, who was as much a spoiled child as a god. And his brother Thor had his magical hammer Mjollnir, but he was definitely more brawn than brain.  Add the beautiful Freya, the handsome Balder, and some elves, dwarves, and giants and Norse mythology paved my way for Lord of the Rings. Besides, who can resist gods whose realm is connected to earth by a rainbow bridge (Bifrost)?

As it turns out, Neil Gaiman had the same obsession as I. Who better to update Norse mythology than he? Few understand twisted stories as well as Gaiman, the brainchild behind The Sandman, American Gods, and dark marvels such as The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Gaiman knows good material when he has it and possesses the wisdom not to over-tinker. He hasn’t changed the substance of the stories; his is more of a hipster’s edit. He has shortened many of the tales and has rewritten them in his own voice: direct, snarky and filled with irreverent addenda. When Odin meets Hel, Loki’s half-rotted corpse daughter who rules the realm of the dishonorable dead, he remarks, “You are a polite child. I’ll give you that.” Later, Gaiman describes Odin’s novel escape from the giant Suttung: “Odin blew some … mead out of his behind, a splattery wet fart of foul-smelling mead right in Suttung’s face, blinding the giant and throwing him off Odin’s trail.” You don’t get Greek gods doing any of that!  Nor are their moral lessons the likes of: “No one, then or now, wanted to drink the mead that came out of Odin’s ass.” Gaiman’s gods bicker like bullheaded schoolyard children and are just as impulsive, albeit more deadly. Sometimes they kill just to cover up their mistakes.

Norse gods could themselves be killed. In fact, all of them perish in a final clash with the Frost Giants called Ragnarok, the Norse equivalent of the Apocalypse and just as preordained. It is, appropriately, Gaiman’s final chapter. But I don’t want to preordain anyone’s pleasure by delving more into this book’s content. To be sure, Gaiman’s propensity for being a bit too hip and snarky for his own good is in evidence in this book but if you’ve never read the Norse myths, or have only encountered them in the dreadful Hollywood Thor movies, Gaiman should be your starting point for a deeper exploration. If, like me, you enjoyed these stories when younger, read Gaiman for a glimpse back at your childhood imagination. A final note: Too many kids are sheltered from stories such as these today in the mistaken belief they are being spared from trauma. Nonsense! Kids adore gory, off-color stories filled with monsters and giants, so let them cross that rainbow bridge when they come to it.

Rob Weir