“10 Years of European World of Bluegrass” by Various Artists

Various Artists
10 Years of European World of Bluegrass
Strictly Country Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

So, the high cost of gas is putting the brakes on your festival-going plans for the summer? Never fear: Producer Liz Meyer and the fine folks at the European World of Bluegrass have put together the festival to end all festivals on an outstanding two-disc set. They’ve culled the best of the best from 10 years of festival shows to bring us 48 bands from 15 countries, including the United States. Here are some of the highlights:

The four-piece band, Footprints, and their seamless fusion of hardcore high-lonesome with vocals in their native Slovenian.

Transcendent a cappella gospel from the Czech Republic’s Relief and Italy’s Mideando String Quartet, whose bass vocalist – the liner notes offer no clue as to who sings what part — is one for the ages.

Raymond McLain (banjo) and Mike Stevens (harmonica) raising a ruckus on a lightning fast dash through “Train 45.” Likewise, the Hunger Mountain Boys on “Feast Here Tonight” and the Czech trio, Jiri Kralik & the Rowdy Rascals, with a version of “Ida Red” that would make the New Lost City Ramblers proud.

Sublime pre-bluegrass sounds from the Dutch band, Skyland, on Doc and Rosa Lee Watson’s “Your Long Journey,” and Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands, on the broadside ballad “Wood Thrush Song.”

Outstanding performances from American favorites, Bill Clifton & Pick of the Crop (“Little Whitewashed Chimney”), Randy Waller & the Country Gentlemen (“Southbound Train”), and Dan Paisley and the Southern Grass (“When My Time Comes to Go”).

The innovative gospel sounds of France’s Springfield, who combine driving, Watson-style, guitar with black gospel-style vocals on “Paul and Silas.” This is a band to watch.

The crisp, driving style of yet another band to watch. Jussi Syren & the Groundbreakers come from Finland, but their “Life of a Steel Driving Man” is pure Appalachia. Syren’s rough-and-ready lead vocal and his songwriting chops will thrill traditionalists.

Sublime contemporary grass from both sides of the Atlantic. The members of the Czech band, Goodwill, all play with exquisite tone and musicianship, but Martin Vitasek’s whiskey-rich guitar and lead vocals make this another band to watch. Also in that category, The New England Bluegrass Band grasses up the Everly Brothers classic, “Brand New Heartache” with yearning trio harmonies.

Those are just a few of the brilliant performances in this set. There are many more tracks worth repeated listening, and many more bands worth seeking out. “10 Years of European World of Bluegrass” is a collection of remarkable diversity and depth.

by Maria Morgan Davis

“Still Crooked” by Crooked Still

Crooked Still
Still Crooked
Signature Sounds
4.5 stars (out of 5)

From the opening seconds of Ola Belle Reed’s timeless “Undone in Sorrow,” listeners sense they are in for a treat with Crooked Still’s third album. The promise is fulfilled in each of the album’s 44 minutes.

Crooked Still’s story is well known. As part of the emerging young string band movement, the four-piece band gained almost universal acclaim for their sophomore album Shaken By A Low Sound in 2006. Crooked Still identifies itself from similar bands through incorporation of the cello into what many continue to mistakenly identify as a bluegrass band. Additionally, by minimizing the use of guitar, the band further steps away from standard string band structures. Cellist Rushad Eggleston left the band late last year, and followers wondered what impact his absence would have on Crooked Still’s new disc.

Still Crooked is a stronger and more cohesive album than their last outing, and miles from where the band started with Hop High. Notably, the band has become adept at identifying and executing less familiar material. Gone are the “Darling Coreys,” “Rank Strangers,” and “Wind and Rains” of previous albums. While enjoyable, the songs on the previous albums frequently appeared too obvious.

Instead, on this Eric Merrill produced disc, the band — now fleshed out to a five-piece with the addition of cellist Tristan Clarridge and fiddler Britany Haas — appears to have delved deeper into the folk traditions to find songs like “The Absentee,” “Florence, and “Captain, Captain” as well as a couple originals.

Given the song title’s prominence within the gatefold sleeve, “Undone in Sorrow” appears to have particular significance to the New England-based quintet. One might be tempted to read too much into the song’s closing lyric, “And I’ll not end a man in riches, undone is sorrow I’ll remain” and believe the band is symbolically pining for the departed Eggleston. If they are, there is little evidence amongst the thirteen stellar performances, and one suspects the image of falling into never-ending melancholy over a departed love is more romantic than realistic. Still, Crooked Still’s treatment of the song is faithful to Reed’s seldom encountered mountain rendition if not its rustic foundation, bringing sophistication to the sparse melody that Reed may never have imagined.

As is perhaps intended, the album has the feel of a hymnal about it. “The Absentee,” “Pharaoh,” “Wading Deep Waters,” and “Florence” all have at their core messages of seeking, deliverance, and faith.

Elsewhere, other facets of life are covered with “Poor Ellen Smith” (the only song that is arguably too frequently recorded) laying cold on the ground and John Hurt being told off by his two-timing honey in “Baby, What’s Wrong With You?,” the closest Crooked Still comes to a pop song. Vocalist Aoife O’Donovan’s “Low Down and Dirty” has a creepy, effective Vicki Lawrence thing going, with a tormented woman killing her lover in a graveyard. And despite the presence of a lyric sheet, I’m still not sure what’s going on in Nathan Taylor’s “Did You Sleep Well?” I suspect it isn’t innocent.

The song structures are challenging, making repeated listening experiences fresh. “Oh Agamemnon” opens with almost a minute of instrumentation before unfolding in a pair of multi-verse bursts punctuated by extended violin rich interludes. “Pharaohs” fades and returns, and refrains are fleshed out and breathe, as on “Wading Deep Waters.”

O’Donovan’s voice, much like Bearfoot’s Annalisa Tornfelt’s, has that mysterious quality too frequently referenced as ethereal; it grabs the listener and holds on, leaving one sated but desiring more when the disc ends. Greg Liszt, most famous for being Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions banjoist, is an understated, deep 5-string artist. He manages to convey emotion in solitary string bends, complementing Clarridge’s lonesome cello, and providing songs with unusual atmosphere. Only on “Poor Ellen Smith” does Liszt cut loose a little, at least as much as is allowed within the restrained format favored by Crooked Still.

How did bluegrass became associated with the band? I suppose it was because of the presence of banjo and fiddle in an acoustic setting. The roots of Crooked Still’s go deeper than 1946 to the string bands popular early in the last century, yet their sound is completely unique, sharing only the vaguest commonalities with Old Crow Medicine Show, Uncle Earl, and that ilk. And, unlike bluegrass where- despite the occasional female coming to the fore to lead things- the game is largely dominated by males, in the new string band world inhabited by Crooked Still, the gals tend to stand on an equal footing with the boys.

Still Crooked is an album I’ve been listening to for two months, and it has seldom stayed out of the player for more than a few days. Each listening reveals depths to Crooked Still not previously noticed. Beautiful stuff, this.

by Donald Teplyske

“3D” by Casey Driessen

Casey Driessen
Sugar Hill Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Upon entering Casey Driessen’s 3D into iTunes, the word Unclassifiable appears in the application’s Genre column. Coincidence or not, this debut solo project from one of today’s most promising young fiddlers is certainly beyond category. After what sounds like a storm siren—perhaps a beacon to listeners that this is not your typical Sugar Hill bluegrass fiddle release—the album opens into a hypnotic arrangement of “Sally in the Garden” that embeds the tune’s classic, haunting melody in a fresh groove of percussion, bass, and electronica. This CD (pun intended) is something completely different.

The album’s core trio consists of Driessen, decorated bassist Viktor Krauss, and the great jazz/world music percussionist Jamey Haddad. Several tracks also feature a guest slot filled by one of the following musical luminaries: Jerry Douglas, Béla Fleck, Darrell Scott, or Tim O’Brien. Engaged in a healthy mix of original compositions and creative arrangements, the shifting personnel produces an enormous variety of musical and textural contrast, which appears to be one of Driessen’s primary objectives.

The twelve tracks offer a wide range of musical explorations. “Footsteps So Near” (the Hot Rize classic) and the Grammy-nominated “Jerusalem Ridge” are wild multi-track escapades featuring layers of only Driessen (particularly his amazing “chop” technique).

However, the collaborative pieces are the real jewels here. Haddad’s hand drums add multi-ethnic colorings to the Irish-tinged “Gaptooth” and odd-metered meditation “The Confusion Before Dreams.” The deep, earthy pocket of “Cliff Dweller’s Slide” showcases Krauss’ prowess, while Fleck (“Gaptooth”) and Douglas (playing an overdriven lap steel on “Lady Bowmore”) match the material with especially inventive playing. Scott lends his organic guitar style and harmony vocals to the lowdown, dirty grooves of “Country Blues” and “Sugarfoot Rag/Freedom Jazz Dance,” the latter an interesting marriage using the Eddie Harris jazz tune (via Miles Davis’s arrangement, which probably should have been acknowledged) as a closing vamp.

While Driessen sings on just three selections, his grainy vocals—often filtered through various effects—contain a rawness that fits well with the album’s character. Additionally, he reveals impressive composing and arranging skills, most notably on such tunes as “The Confusion Before Dreams,” “Cliff Dweller’s Slide,” and the beautiful waltz “2 A.M.” Of course, the fiddling is the artistic glue that effectively holds this project together. It is Driessen in his element with an impeccable support system of musicians, and the results wonderfully stretch current notions of category, style, and creative possibility.

by Kevin Kehrberg

“The Band of Heathens” by The Band of Heathens

The Band of Heathens
The Band of Heathens
BOH Records
3 stars (out of 5)

The Band of Heathens was born at the legendary Momo’s in Austin, where its singers and songwriters Colin Brooks, Ed Jurdi, and Gordy Quist transformed their regular co-billings into on-stage collaborations. The Heathens quickly became heroes in the local club scene and started racking up Austin Music Awards.

The quintet (completed by bassist Seth Whitney and drummer John Chipman) continues its badboy persona and barroom vibe on its self-titled studio debut. Eleven originals harken a cross between 70s southern rock and Little Feat that’s unfortunately tarnished by white boy blues that sounds like, well, white boy blues.

Make no mistake: these guys and producer Ray Wylie Hubbard are much too talented to turn out the southern sound mainstream country won’t let us forget. However, when the smoke clears, the dust settles, and the buzz wears off, we’re left mostly with refrains like “I’ve got my heart strapped to my sleeve/I’ve got my sleeve tucked in my jeans/I’ve got my jeans tucked in my boots/I’ve got my boots walking back to you.” Not bad, but not quite.

The exceptional standout “40 Days” (with Patty Griffin) and the on-the-mark groove of “This I Know” and “Nine Steps Down” demonstrate what can be accomplished with a little less testosterone. Indeed, the Band of Heathens is capable of being so much better than the best bar band one’s ever heard.

by Tim Walsh

“Now” by Boudler Acoustic Society

Boulder Acoustic Society
1 star (out of 5

In many ways, the Boulder Acoustic Society offers up typical new acoustic music. There’s the bouncy, clean-cut jive, the Chet Baker vocal stylings, the “It’s a Small World” approach to material, where Latin blends into gospel blends into jazz, and the resulting juggernaut deracinates everything in its path.

But the Boulder Acoustic Society adds something to the mix: a performance level that starts promisingly, but degenerates into amateurishness and, finally, incompetence.

Guitarist Brad Jones is the standout musician, with nice moments on “Gospel Plow” and “Lullaby of Birdland,” but nothing to write home about. “Birdland” gets an evocatively smoky intro from upright bassist Aaron Keim, whose writing shows promise with “Daddy’s Got the Jake-Leg.”

“Jake-Leg” gets some textural interest from Keim’s five-string work, but his lead vocal is uninspired. Only in the outro does he find the grit that might have made this a decent cut.

Poor technique mars the CD throughout. Jones, on ukulele, has problems with tone and technique in “Tico Tico.” “Birdland” and “Now Is the Hour” suffer pitch problems in the lead vocals.

The worst offenders are fiddler Kailin Yong and accordionist Scott McCormick. Their lifeless imitations of Stephane Grappelli and Astor Piazzola might have made Now merely tedious, but neither one seems to have heard of rhythm chunks. Their mid-range cat fights make some cuts (especially “Lullaby of Birdland”) cacophonous to the point of torture.

The closing track, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” delivers the coup de grace: four minutes and 14 seconds of barroom sound effects and the kind of sloppy-drunk sing-along that drives music lovers to flee long before last call.

by Maria Morgan Davis

“Tuned In” by Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers

Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers
Tuned In
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Many remember Joe Mullins for his world-class banjo and tenor vocal work with the Traditional Grass and with Longview.

Not everyone knows that for the last several years, Joe has been making his living with his growing Classic Country Radio enterprise in southwest Ohio, with AM stations in Xenia (1500), Wilmington (1090) and Eaton (1130), and online at www.myclassiccountry.com. He also promotes the Southern Ohio Indoor Music Festival (somusicfest.com), a twice-yearly indoor festival that gets more popular every year.

A never-ceasing demand for his banjo playing and a need to make the occaisional promotional appeaance led him to create the Radio Ramblers, and bluegrass fans are the better for it.

Joe’s banjo rings out string and clear on Allen Shelton’s “Bending the Strings.” That track, along with “East Tennessee Blues,” also showaces the fine instrumental work of Dry Branch Fire Squad alumni Adam McIntosh (guitar), Mike Terry (mandolin), Evan McGregor (fiddle) and Tim Kidd (bass).

“Each Minute Seems a Million Years,” “My Blue Eyed Darlin’,” “Baby Girl” and “When I’ve Traveled My Last Mile” all get the old-school bluegrass treatment, the latter with some particularly sweet singing. “Deeper Than the Stain” closes out the 10-song disc with some gorgeous a cappella.

Excepting veterans Mullins and McIntosh, some of the singing and playing here and there is just a bit tentative, but Tuned In is a fine listen and a clear signal that there’s even better music to come.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Asking for Flowers” by Kathleen Edwards

Kathleen Edwards
Asking for Flowers
Zoe/Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

Credit Canadian Kathleen Edwards for taking the time after 2005’s Back to Me to not just restock her inventory of songs, but to come up with a magnum opus on her third full-length release stateside. With eleven new masterpieces, affective all-out vocals, brilliant backing, and Jim Scott’s perfect production, one simply can’t ask for anything more from Asking for Flowers.

The ominous opening notes from Jim Bryson’s piano lead our moody heroine into “Buffalo” with heart on sleeve awash in swirling strings paced by Gary Craig’s pounding percussion. Yet the anticipated eruption that eventually occurs on “Oh Canada” is preempted by a pair of hilarious outbursts. “The Cheapest Key,” in which Edwards emphatically qualifies each musical key, sets up the resigned title track, and the twanger “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory,” with classic lines “You’re cool and cred like Fogerty/I’m Elvis Presley in the 70s,” provides the requisite relief after the gut-wrenching “Alicia Ross.” Those four tracks should vie for Song of the Year.

They also demonstrate the stylistic breadth that often transforms the singer/songwriter’s output into catchy pop and rockers like “Oil Man’s War” and “Run.” Edwards is flanked by studio stalwarts Bryson, bassist Bob Glaub, drummer Don Heffington, multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz, keyboardist Benmont Tench, and guitarist/husband Colin Cripps. Producer Scott pulls all the right strings – from Kevin Fox’s string arrangements combined with scorching guitars to Edward’s solo acoustic on “Sure as Shit.”

“Goodnight, California,” the dreamy six and a half minute lament that closes the disc assures us that Faler’s “Mercury” is still “parked out under the light,” but now Edwards is ready at the wheel with complete confidence, honesty, and openness. She won’t turn the ignition because she’s perhaps had a shot or two. However, she’ll take you on a ride you’ll never forget!

by Tim Walsh