As Llewelyn Davis wryly mused about folk music, it’s never old and it’s never new. But the Hi-Tone Ramblers, a Boston-based string band, manage to make the 14 chestnuts on their stellar sophomore offering, Bed Bug Blues, sound alternately fresh and modern without losing that old-time charm. The minute the warm, honeyed notes of Little Sam come joyfully hurtling out of the speakers, you know you have found one of those desert island discs.
In addition to its pristine production, memorable arrangements, soaring harmonies, and top-rate picking by this quintet, what makes this such a winning recording is its protean array of styles from every corner of the old, weird America.
There are irresistible toe-tapping reels like Half Irish with breathtakingly bright fiddle work by Cathy Mason, a healthy dollop of country gospel (Sinner You’d Better Get Ready, The Soul of Man Never Dies), a dash of Cajun (Jolie Blonde), and a riot of Kentucky fiddle tunes (Hog-Eyed Man, CanYou Dance A Tobacco Hill?). A spine-tingling Roundpeak tune (Chilly Winds) rounds things out. Some standout cuts include Chased Old Satan with Tim Fitzpatrick’s winning vocals which are witty and playful without being hammy and Bethany Weiman’s cello brings a full and rich undercurrent to every tune in this collection.
Even the packaging is perfect. Just try to resist the winsome and enchanting cover art—a transporting painting by Kim Parkhurst of a moonlit hootenanny of fairies dancing with woodland creatures. Bed Bug Blues is one hootenanny you won’t want to miss!
I love it when there’s one person on stage with an instrument and a microphone. The artist is raw and exposed and vulnerable. After seeing a bunch of these shows, you start to get a feel for a performance that has the ring of truth about it. Recently I saw a really “true” performance. The artist’s name is Rich Podgur. Everything about him screams “authentic”- from his left-handed Guild guitar to his corduroy sport coat.
His songs have working-man imagery and feel. At different times I was reminded of other songwriters whose delivery also feels honest and gritty- like John Prine and Townes Van Zandt and Neil Young. Full disclosure- I’m trying to figure out how get hired as a sideman in his band. I feel like I’m getting a sneak preview of something really great. It reminds me of time when songs had integrity and life. Good songs make us feel and remember and think- they take on a life of their own. They have the ability to travel with us and comment and connect with us when we least expect it.
I’m really looking forward to a recording from this guy. I want the ability to read and listen to the lyrics and gain some new traveling companions.
Just banjo and fiddle playing together was the original rock band. From the earliest time of the banjo in America – the mid to late 1800’s, the music partner of choice was the fiddle. Here’s a list of some of my favorite duo recordings:
Banging and Sawing by Bob Carlin and Guests
Southern Summits by Alan Jabbour and Ken Perlman
Tommy & Fred by Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham
Starry Crown by Rhys Jones and Christina Wheeler
The Time’s Been Sweet by Jeanne Murphy & Scott Marckx
Phil’s Patio by Aaron Jonah Lewis and Matt Ball
The Fun of Open Discussion by Bob Carlin and John Hartford
These recordings have all affected me on different levels. They’ve inspired me to learn the tunes. They’ve compelled me to seek out fiddlers and sit knee to knee and communicate musically. I’ve shared tunes with my bands and we’ve learned them and added more instruments.
When I think back on wonderful musical moments through the years, many of them have been at festivals where two of us have searched out a quiet corner to sit and play together. Starting with a tune we both know (or not…) and first developing the common ground to kind of establish the musical outlines of the thing that we are creating together then having fun and allowing new ideas to emerge.
The albums above all do this. Most of it is banjo and fiddle but there are some really beautiful fiddle duets on Starry Crown. In the duet form I always love when the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.
Whenever I hear a live show that makes me either want to hang up my instruments forever or go home and practice all night, I know I’ve just heard something really good. Last Friday night I was at this great fiddle event hosted bay Dave Reiner and his family. It’s a three day fiddle learning event called Fiddle Hell. There are classes, performances, workshops and jams galore. I was lucky enough to catch a set by Blue Moose and the Unbuttoned Zippers. Fresh from their CD release party at Club Passim, their performance was tight, surprising and inspiring all at the same time. The band consists of Andy Reiner on fiddle, Mariel Vandersteel on fiddle, Stash Wyslouch on Guitar and Bronwyn Bird on the nyckelharpa (a very unusual type of Swedish fiddle).
I’ve often been asked what are good recordings to listen to. One reply that I often give as an absolute “must own, listen and learn” is the first Fuzzy Mountain String Band album.
This great album was recorded in two living rooms live to a a two track tape recorder and was one of the first albums released by the Rounder label in 1972 (ROUN0010).
There are so many things that I love about this album. The spirit in which it was made, the choice of tunes, the instrumentation, the totally shoestring manner in which it was recorded, the album packaging, and on and on. If you’d like to learn more about the musicians that made this and the various bands that were spawned by what was originally a gathering of friends getting together at local homes to play and enjoy old time music then visit the site of the original Red Clay Ramblers.
There are twenty cuts largely taken from the Henry Reed repertoire. These tunes were collected by the great fiddler Alan Jabbour. These tunes show up regularly at every jam that I’ve ever attended. If anyone wants a good place to start in building their own list of tunes that they can feel comfortable playing on, there could hardly be a better place to start.
Rounder combined thirty-three cuts from their first two albums on a CD release in 1995 (ROUN11571).
Some of my favorites from this venerably vinyl disc are Old Mother Flanagan, Magpie, Protect the Innocent, Frosty Morning, West Fork Girls, Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine, Santa Anna’s Retreat, Quince Dillon’s High D Tune. If you’d like to listen to me playing some of these tunes with my friends, I’ve posted a bunch of MP3’s on my Banjo Hangout music page.
This is a video of me playing one of my favorite Henry Reed tunes that I learned from the Fuzzy Mountain String Band album.
I heard Stevie Coyle for the first time the other night at the Me & Thee Coffeehouse in Marblehead. I’m not normally a huge fan of the solo-guy-on-a-stage-playing- fingerstyle-guitar-and-singing-about-his-life type of thing. Normally I get bored after hearing the same picking patterns and the same harmonic progressions only slightly altered by the use of a capo. After a couple of songs I was trying to find an excuse to stealthily exit the room. But then something happened. I got interested by what he was doing. I know that musicians normally make the worst audience members so I tried to suspend the steady stream of fault-finding criticism that inevitably accompanies my boredom. In listening to him play and sing I was happily imagining the perfect mix of Jorma Kaukonnen / Tom Waits / Sgt. Pepper / Neil Young. The music was really good. The picking was different from song to song and even within each song. He was playing a Thompson guitar and playing and singing through a small AER amp. Each note of the guitar seemed perfectly suspended in a painting of deeply related color and rhythm. I kept looking for exotic tunings and partial capos. The farthest afield of standard tuning was that I thought I saw him go to drop-D once. He played a great mix of stuff from his latest CD “Ten in One” and covers and tunes I just didn’t know at all but probably came from his other life as a member of the band The Waybacks. Toward the end of the show he got great audience participation by singing some familiar lyrics in a surprising new and wonderful setting. One of the audience members later commented on the great range of emotion that he seemed to effortlessly elicit from ten fingers and six strings. I heartily fought the post-show reaction of assaulting the artist with my normally hyperbolic praise and digging into my wallet to buy as many CD’s as there was cash for. I failed miserably on the first account and had partial success on the second as I only left with one CD. I’ve only listened to it once all the way through and it is as I suspected really interesting. I’m really glad that I listened to my wife when she told me to get out of the office and go to the show. She’s usually (read “always”) right.