Recorded at Black Keys guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach‘s East Eye Sound Studios in Nashville, Paradise, the Wood Brothers‘ Honey Jar Records-issued fifth studio long-player and follow-up to 2013’s The Muse, is their first outing to be written by all three members of the trio, Oliver Wood, Chris Wood, and Jano Rix. It’s also the first set of recordings from the group to feature bassist Chris Wood swapping out his upright for an electric four-string, but plugging in has done little to dampen the trio’s penchant for crafting experimental yet always emotionally resonant slabs of funk-tinged folk and jazz-inflected Americana blues.
Eight years is a long time to wait for a new helping of Cajun-infused bluegrass poly-funk, but it was definitely worth the wait. Aquatic Hitchhiker, Colorado jam legends Leftover Salmon’s new studio release, delivers with an album that defies genres. Vince Herman and Drew Emmitt started the group with banjo master Mark Vann more than twenty years ago, and after Vann’s passing from cancer in 2002 they tried press on, but went on a hiatus in 2004, much to the dismay of their fans. They reunited a few times, including six performances in 2007 and a smattering of shows since, periodically delighting supporters with their signature high-energy performances. Since then, young banjo picking virtuoso Andy Thorn, winner of the coveted Rockygrass banjo and band contest in 2003, has joined forces with Hermann and Emmitt and brought new energy to the band not seen since Vann’s passing.
Aquatic Hitchhiker opens with a Cajun inspired nod to the Gulf oil spill with the song “Gulf of Mexico.” With a funky backbeat , some impressive mandolin and keyboard work, and lyrics that complement the composure well, “Things a little different round here these days. Since the storm and the spill drove everybody away”- it’s pure Salmon. The title track “Aquatic Hitchhiker” starts soft and slow, then explodes into a mad picking fest with a driving beat reminiscent of old-school bluegrass. Thorn really flexes his musical muscles, trading banjo licks with Emmit on the fiddle. The song “Bayou Town” reflects Leftover Salmon’s dexterity, with a swinging old time country-waltz style twang, and “Kentucky Skies” is sure to be a crowd favorite – because what Leftover Salmon fan wouldn’t appreciate a tune about moonshine, Bill Monroe, bluegrass festivals and playing guitar around a campfire under the night sky?
Not that every song on the album is pure Leftover Salmon “poly-ethnic Cajun slam-grass.” “Light Behind the Rain” is a lyrically rich ballad written by Andy Thorn and Benny Galloway, who also wrote all of the tracks on Yonder Mountain String Band’s 2003 progressive bluegrass release Old Hands. The song “Here Comes the Night” also deviates from Salmon’s norm, sounding like a 70’s pop song with the band trading guitar chords for furious picking, but it grows on you after you hear it a few times.
Acquatic Hitchhiker, which was produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, is a well put-together studio effort from a band known for their amazing, high energy live shows. Although LoS is known as a jam band, they defy genres and their energy and passion shines through on this twelve track offering. They deliver an impressive set of funk, rock, country, folk, jazz, and of course, they didn’t forget the ardent fans of the good old-fashioned ”poly-ethnic Cajun slamgrass” that only Leftover Salmon can deliver.
Michigan’s perennial string band Greensky Bluegrass deliver the follow-up to their breakthrough 2011 album Handguns with the equally robust If Sorrows Swim. In the three years since Handguns hit number three on Billboard’s bluegrass chart, the progressive Kalamazoo quintet have honed their distinct style which blends the earthy warmth of traditional bluegrass styles with a more muscular, darkly hued rock tone. The fifth studio album in their 14-career, If Sorrows Swim contains contributions from dueling songwriters, mandolinist Paul Hoffman and guitarist Dave Bruzza, whose differing styles create a complementary whole that is a major part of the band’s identity. Full of the top-notch playing fans have come to expect, it’s an album grounded in the lonesome rural sound, but with plenty of punch and immediacy.
I’m not a big Keller Williams fan. With his reliance on electronic looping and hokey humor, he’s an acquired taste that I haven’t quite acquired.
On the other hand, I’m a big fan of Del McCoury’s band, both when they play behind the best hair in bluegrass and when they’re out on their own as The Travelin’ McCourys.
So I had mixed feelings before listening to Pick, the new release by Keller Williams and The Traveling McCourys on SCI Fidelity.
But after numerous listens, I can tell you this: It works. And the reason it works is the masterful picking of Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Rob McCoury on banjo, Jason Carter on fiddle and Alan Bartram on bass.
These guys are solidly grounded in bluegrass but not afraid to jump into the deep end and try something risky.
Williams’ songs are paired here with some tunes the McCourys have been playing for a long time and one new one penned by Bartram. The result is an exercise in fun and proof that bluegrass instruments played masterfully can bring a jolt of energy and excitement.
Highpoints on Pick are The Graveyard Shift, What a Waste and Bumper Sticker. Fans of the McCourys will recognize The Graveyard Shift because Ronnie McCoury has been singing it for years and the band first did it with Steve Earle. And Bumper Sticker, written by Williams, pays homage to bluegrassers who weren’t afraid to test the boundaries of the genre at times, including John Duffey and Del McCoury, who makes a guest vocal appearance to wind up the song and the CD.
But one of the best marriages since peanut butter and chocolate is on What a Waste. The song has everything: a lover pining for his girl who died too soon, moonshine, a bit of religion and humor. It’s a song the boys had performed with Del before they met up with Williams, and is a perfect fit here. It sounds like something Williams would write. Here’s a taste:
From the still they pulled the plug
Now the revenuers snicker
‘cause she melted in the liquor
and they had to bury poor Lily by the jug.
The musical pairing came about when the band met up with Williams at a mutual friend’s Nashville studio. “We played a few songs and decided let’s try to make a record,” Ronnie McCoury recalled in a phone conversation while he was, well, traveling. “I can’t say enough good things about playing with him. Keller’s pretty prepared. He’s got a pulse on today’s music.”
The McCourys add what Ronnie called “a little boost. We give a bluegrass spin to his songs. From the start, he’s been very grateful. He just says all the time, ‘Thank you for letting me into your world.’ ”
Ronnie and the others are eager, even a bit anxious, to see how Pick goes over. But they’ve already passed on key test.
“My dad and mother absolutely love this record,” Ronnie said. “My mom texted us and said ‘we’re listening to it again.’”
Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick, Charles Sawtelle and Nick Forster all maintained solo careers, and Hot Rize never seemed to tour or record with regularity, but the band was always something to look out for, or look forward to. They used a broader palette of musical colours, including electric instruments from time to time, and featuring Wernick’s phase-shifted banjo.
They didn’t need gimmicks — even though they had lots of them, most obviously their alter egos, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers — and those kind of things were just diversions which, for the most part, were welcome. The strength of the ensemble, and the vast experience that the players brought to it, often was a reminder of just how good bluegrass music can be. They are also a reminder that, no matter how good the parts, the whole is an ensemble; these aren’t players that sit back and wait for their solo, rather they are constantly in tune and contributing to what’s going on.
With Bryan Sutton on guitar, the band is certainly as good as ever, and also gives us a welcome chance to hear Sutton, as well as O’Brien, in a standard bluegrass unit. The voices dip in and out, circling around each other in “Sky Rider,” one of two instrumentals on this disc.
The writing is strong — as on “Western Skies” and “You Were on my Mind” — as of course it would be given that O’Brien is one of the best writers in the genre. “Doggone” is a nod to the blues-rock influence that we’ve heard from Hot Rize before, though the album as a whole stays very close to the core of what Hot Rize is all about.
Ultimately, “When I’m Free” may be the band’s strongest release ever, and with 24 years since the last studio recording, it certainly doesn’t come a moment too soon.
In times when uninspired sameness and unjustified experimentation appear to be the norm seeing some old-school cool in the music industry is refreshing. With his upcoming album “Domestic Eccentric” Canadian singer-songwriter Chris Luedecke does justice to his stage name “Old Man” and delivers craftsmanship quality proper of yesteryears.
Each and every song in the record is a different take on family affairs. They talk about relationships, adulthood and the perks/troubles of being a parent – a reflection, thus, of the artist’s situation at the moment, his life in a backwood cabin with wife and baby twins. When art tries to replicate reality the results are often enticing.
That is why the studio of choice for this record was his own house: there’s no better place to deal with private matters than one’s own backyard. The only “intruder” Luedecke allowed in his personal statement was long-time friend and Grammy award-winner Tim O’Brien. Because, well, the multi-instrumentalist knows how to work his strings.
“Tim is my favourite musician,” explains Luedecke. “Working with him in a duet environment in a cabin at home was a waking dream.” The two had paired twice before (including for 2012’s “Tender is the Night”, which won Album of the Year at the East Coast Music Awards), but this time around the partnership sounds even more fluid and organic.
Songs like “Prologue: Yodelady” and “The Briar and the Rose” are simply delightful and good examples of the balanced arrangement the duo managed to apply throughout the entire disc. All in all, “Domestic Eccentric” sounds subtle and fun without ever losing contact with the message it is trying to convey in the best traditions of the folk and country music.
Luedecke’s fine way with language – “We’re saving up for date night so we can have our fight,” he sings in “The Early Days” – is a perfect match to O’Brien’s skills. The poetry one writes probably wouldn’t have the same power without the accurate adorning provided by the other. Together, however, they are unison.
“Domestic Eccentric” is the seventh album by Canadian singer-songwriter Old Man Luedecke, third recorded alongside Tim O’Brien, and will be released online and in stores on 24th of July.
Yep, one of the quirkiest love songs I ever heard.