By Donald Teplyske
On his very strong new album, Junior Sisk sings, “A Far Cry from Lester and Earl” and I suspect that outfits like The 23 String Band would be among those feeling his wrath for drifting too far from Carter, Ralph, and “the love of a sweet mountain girl.” Recent online treatises from Chris Pandolfi and Travers Chandler, reasoned as they are, provide further fuel to a misinterpreted belief that bluegrass must evolve away from itself to survive.
The 23 String Band would most likely find themselves agreeing with those on all sides of the big tent, and would encourage those seeking shelter there to stop talking (and writing) and get pickin’.
Like Joy Kills Sorrow, the Steeldrivers, and the Infamous Stringdusters, the 23 String Band doesn’t seem to much care about labels and genre constructs. Rather, their focus is on making music that seems to aggressively poke at the very core of bluegrass before revealing itself to have as much in common with the sound as it does stylistically and atmospherically with popular bluegrass-based acoustiblue bands, the ones that get lumped into the “jam band” category.
None of which would matter if the music didn’t hold up to repeated listening. Fortunately, with their sophomore album—and I’ll be buying that first album first chance I get—this Kentucky-based group has produced an album that entertains while it challenges.
Singing with bleeding-throat intensity softened by an awareness of bluegrass precision, Chris Shouse is the most obvious place to start when examining the 23 String Band’s sound. Always in control, in spots (“Fat Frankie”) Shouse pushes his voice while elsewhere—“Leave Everything to Me,” for example—he gently swings with an old-timey ease; apt comparisons might be Ketch Secor (Old Crow Medicine Show) and Chris Robinson (Black Crowes).
From first listen, T. Martin Stam’s bass and Scott Moore’s fiddle provide a depth of texture that one isn’t accustomed to encountering on relatively unheralded acoustic Americana releases. Mountain Blues indeed is the term that comes to mind listening to tunes such as “Fat Frankie,” “Hey Pretty Mama,” and the title track, an extended instrumental.
Everyone in the band receives vocal credit although Shouse takes all the leads. Dave Howard (mandolin) and Curtis Wilson (banjo) more than round-out the band’s full-frontal aural attack. John Hartford’s “Long Hot Summer Days” is just one of the songs providing ample evidence of Howard’s and Wilson’s talents: the mid-song instrumental interlude is almost trance-inducing.
With most of the eleven tunes being original, the traditions of the music are further explored through choice covers. “Cripple Creek” and “Raleigh & Spencer” are taken for rides. The obligatory rock n’ roll cred-check is provided with a more than satisfactory reading of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “Listen to Her Heart.” Why do I always think of Lucinda Williams when I hear that song?
With so much music coming our way, it is often difficult for an album or band to distinguish themselves from the pile. With an affable quality of performance, The 23 String Band has solved their self-defined Catch 23.
Recommended for fans of Chatham County Line, The Earl Brothers, and Acoustic Syndicate, Catch 23 presents an impressive cohesiveness of style that bodes well for the future of the 23 String Band.