“Brighter Every Day” by Trout Steak Revival

Trout Steak Revival
Brighter Every Day
Self-released
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

I don’t love every album that crosses my desk, and I tend to write only about those that move me in some positive manner. This year I have received a dozen or more albums from youthful, neo-bluegrass outfits (most of whom sport much too much facial hair…not sure why that bothers me so much…) and only a few have inspired my written efforts.

Trout Steak Revival is one of those exceptions. Darn it all, they are some kind of good.

Theirs is a story told across the continent. Five friends come together and form an acoustic band to perform their interpretation of modern bluegrass, more Sam Bush and Della Mae than Stanleys and Mullinses. Each member is a singer, all write songs. They woodshed. They win the 2014 Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band competition, as have Greensky Bluegrass, Spring Creek, the Hillbenders, and Front Country in recent years. They meet Chris Pandolfi of the Infamous Stringdusters, who produces their third album.

And they sell 100,000 copies of that release.

All but the last has unfolded for Trout Steak Revival, but danged if I can figure why they haven’t already sold a truck load of albums, opened for the Grateful Dead at their final shows, or made the cover of American Songwriter.

Because this is excellent music. Trout Steak Revival are Steve Foltz (mandolin and guitar), Casey Houlihan (bass), Will Koster (dobro and guitar), Travis McNamara (banjo), and Bevin Foley (fiddle.) All sing and the band appears to function as a cohesive collective that has its sights on a common vision. Based in the Colorado mountains, the group presents the free-spirited manner many associate with bluegrass emanating from the Centennial State.

What you’ll find is bright, enlivening bluegrass played with communal closeness bred of familiarity, companionship, and respect. Trout Steak Revival’s songs are mood-inducing in the way of the finest of the new breed, and yet are rooted to the foundational aspects of bluegrass—harmony, rhythm, and drive—but not of the obvious, in-your-face type—along with quality musicianship, captivating lyrics (how about, “stealing midnight shadows, I’m swimming in my sleep,” from the album closer “Colorado River?”) and sufficient tempo and key variety to maintain the most scrutinizing listener’s interest. If they remind me of anyone it is Acoustic Syndicate, minus the drums, especially when McNamara is singing the leads.

Original songs of fragility and nature (“Wind on the Mountain” and “Colorado River”) are balanced by yearnings for home and stability (“Union Pacific” and “Days of Gray”) and energetic flights of fancy (“Brighter Every Day”). And pie (“Pie”).

“Oklahoma,” sung by Foltz, is another highlight, with vocals that soar within the confines of the melody; no one is showing off within these songs—every note counts and supports, each phrasing adds to the keenness of the song.

“Go On,” featuring Foley’s strong, bouncy voice, is the only song that moves from bluegrass into swing territory, and is a fine change-of-pace. The album’s sole instrumental, “Sierra Nevada,” reminds us of tunes found on old Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe recordings, ones that seem like they should have words, but whose bow strokes and mandolin notes communicate as much as rhyming verse might ever.

Have I mentioned that Brighter Every Day is an excellent modern bluegrass recording?

“Della Mae” by Della Mae

Della Mae
Della Mae
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

I’ve been playing this album regularly for the past few months, but couldn’t figure out what to write about it considering the number of quality reviews that have been published. But, once more unto the breach…it is my vocation, after all. Della Mae is the quintet’s third album, and features the four core members of the group with guest bassist Mark Schatz pinch hitting.

Vocal dynamo Celia Woodsmith continues to front the group and contributes some guitar, with the leads played by Courtney Hartman who also plays the banjo. Kimber Ludiker is the very expressive fiddler and Jenni Gardner handles the mandolin, certainly one of the group’s strongest assets. The album was recorded prior to Zoe Guigueno joining the group on upright bass.

I can’t locate my copy of the group’s previous Rounder album This World Oft Can Be, so I don’t have much to go by except my memory—which is fragile at the best of times. But I recall that album having a more apparent bluegrass foundation than does Della Mae. I do have their debut album I Built This Heart on hand, and the group’s sound has certainly changed over the course of time.

Gone are most obvious elements of bluegrass, a noticeable evolution. Nowhere in the press sheet for the album, or in Ed Helms’ liner notes, is the word ‘bluegrass’ mentioned. They remain, however, a powerhouse outfit, pouring out a loud ‘n’ proud blend of soulful Americana. If the group is happy they are to be applauded for following their muse wherever it takes them.

Much attention has gone to the lead track, “Boston Town,” and Woodsmith’s working-woman’s anthem is certainly worthy of notice; like the finest songs of Maria Dunn, Hazel Dickens, and John McCutcheon, the labour-positive message is wrapped in optimum musical cloth. “Rude Awakening” is an incredible song, and Woodsmith’s voice can’t be contained, although it is completely controlled. Woodsmith and Hartman are the group songwriters, and wrote either together or individually eight of the album’s eleven songs.

Della Mae’s opening trio of songs is as strong a burst as I’ve experienced this year. “Can’t Go Back” rounds out this powerful initial salvo, a song with interesting changes and impressive lyrics.

Hartman takes the lead on “Long Shadow,” a song she co-wrote with Sarah Siskind, a personal favourite. Hartman has a terrific voice, robust with a shade of mystery, and the song is a bit dark in its exploration of creative processes and (maybe?) mental health. Gardner also takes a solitary, rambunctious lead (“Good Blood”) bringing additional diversity to the Della Mae vocal sound.

In addition to “Good Blood,” there are two other (and more familiar) songs covered. “To Ohio,” recognizable perhaps to roots types via Emmylou Harris’s inclusion of the Low Anthem song as a ‘bonus track’ to the deluxe version of Hard Bargain.

Equally impressive is the group’s interpretation of the (too) often recorded “No Expectations.” Although I am sure the world didn’t need yet another roots version of the song, Della Mae’s is darned enjoyable with great slide effects from (I presume) Hartman.

Della Mae is a hard-hitting album for folks who have been hit hard. And from my experience, that is most of us.

“Songs of Lost Yesterdays” by Laura Orshaw

Laura Orshaw
Songs of Lost Yesterdays
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Coming out of Massachusetts and working primarily with members of her New Velvet Band, Laura Orshaw has released a prime little bluegrass album. With material well-representing its Songs of Lost Yesterdays title, the album is comprised of several well-known songs and a pair of self-written tracks.

Laura Orshaw, a Pennsylvania native, is a bluegrass veteran having played with the Lonesome Road Ramblers and others while recording, instructing, and gigging on her own. This new recording, her third, features Orshaw’s spirited and bright lead vocals and lively fiddle playing within a strong bluegrass configuration.

Joining Orshaw are members of the aforementioned New Velvet Band, a group Orshaw regularly leads: Matt Witler (mandolin,) Catherine Bowness (banjo,) Tony Watt (guitar,) and Alex Muri (bass.) There is also effective harmony vocals contributed by album producer Michael Reese (including on the album’s appealing lead track “Going to the West”) and her father Mark Orshaw.

While the album is focused on a theme present since bluegrass music’s earliest days—changing times—Orshaw’s approach to the music is compatible with today’s audience. Balancing up-tempo but not necessarily upbeat fare with softer, more restrained numbers, Orshaw has well-sequenced the album.

Orshaw’s original, “Guitar Man,” gives the album its name and gently reveals the ramifications of falling for the wrong picker; it is an aching performance that should find an audience. The second original, “New Deal Train,” revisits the spirit of Guy Clark’s “Texas 1947” within a broadened contemporary context.

One of the many highlights is the title track from a favoured Charlie Moore album, The Cotton Farmer. As does the finest bluegrass, this rendition snaps along with its tale of the old home place’s memories and neglect.

Orshaw also ably delves into the songbooks of Bill Bryson (“Love Me or Leave Me Alone”), Norman Blake (“Uncle”), and Peter Rowan (“Wild Geese Cry Again,”) providing excellent performances of familiar songs.

The seldom covered Hazel Dickens masterpiece “Cold Miner’s Grave” is the album’s strongest performance. The instrumentation is absolutely gorgeous with mandolin notes leading the way, especially early in the song, and when Orshaw sings lines like “Is this how we remember all the sacrifices he made,” no little bit of Dickens’ passion and strength is communicated.

With Songs of Lost Yesterdays Laura Orshaw demonstrates that exceptional bluegrass music can be and is produced by mindful talents with a do-it-yourself outlook, no matter their regional origin, budget, or prominence within the mainstream bluegrass hierarchy.

“Coffee Creek” by the Slocan Ramblers

The Slocan Ramblers
Coffee Creek
Self-released

4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

The Slocan Ramblers, an energetic four-piece bluegrass outfit, have garnered positive praise for their neo-traditional approach to timeless southern-styled mountain music.

With a couple years of heavy gigging having worn out their soles, the Ramblers return with their sophomore effort, produced by bluegrass and old-time veteran Chris Coole (Foggy Hogtown Boys, Lonesome Ace Stringband.)

Canada is weird…when it comes to bluegrass music. It is surprising to outsiders that we don’t all always know what is going on within the industry across the country: take The Slocan Ramblers as an example. Despite their extensive press coverage in eastern Canada, a well-received debut, extensive gigs across the country and into the U.S., and rising profile, until I noticed their name associated with a regional festival later this summer, I had never encountered the group. Alberta, where I live, is some 3500 kilometres (2200 miles) west of Toronto, out of which the Slocan Ramblers are based. Ontario has an entire bluegrass circuit the likes of which I can’t quite fathom, but which is wholly separate from the modest western Canada bluegrass community with which I am more familiar.

I was therefore considerably intrigued upon receiving Coffee Creek for review, and after only a couple songs went online and purchased their 2013 debut, Shaking Down the Acorns.

That first album was highlighted by songs both largely unfamiliar (Jonathan Byrd and Corin Raymond’s “The Law and Lonesome” and “Hallelujah Shore” from Kevin Breit) and perhaps overly familiar (“Wild Bill Jones” and “Tragic Love”), but all executed with obvious verve and prowess. The instrumental tunes presented were similarly excellent, the original title track being somewhat spectacular.

For their second recording, the band has reached another level, and you have got to love a young band who even knows who Dave Evans is, let alone ‘gets’ him! More on that in a bit.

No doubt, these guys can play. They have an unassuming approach to bluegrass, one that doesn’t explode in your face. Their arrangements are clean and they certainly know how to balance themselves in the recording studio; instruments come to the fore smoothly and with precision. Vocally, the group is less distinctive, but that shouldn’t be taken to suggest the listener is shortchanged. Lead singer Frank Evans isn’t entirely high or particularly lonesome, nor is he a shouter or a belter; he sings comfortably  and without avarice. He is confident enough to just lay the words out there, and always seems to be winking at the listener as if to say, “Now, get ready for this bit of harmony: you’re gonna love it.”

The album, rather cheekily, opens with mandolinist Adrian Gross’s sparkling title cut. It takes some brass to kick-off a modern bluegrass album with an instrumental, even one as fiery as “Coffee Creek,” but the Ramblers pull it off with assurance. With heavy bass notes from Alastair Whitehead providing propulsion, and featuring Gross and Evans in a neat mando-banjo duel, the tune sets the table for nearly 50 minutes of exciting, sometimes introspective, acoustic bluegrass.

They slip into Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” next, not the last time they’ll visit a Dave Evans recording on the album. They wisely crank the ratchet by melding Frank Evans’ neat “Honey Babe” with the well-known folk song, a suitable complement. A couple tracks later, Dave Evans’ “Call Me Long Gone” is revisited: while remaining faithful to the spirit of the 1980 recording, the Ramblers give the song a bit more bounce, making the track brighter if no less blue.

Frank Evans appears to be predominately a clawhammer stylist, so it isn’t a surprise that they take a run through “Groundhog” and “Streamline Cannonball,” the only song on which guitarist Darryl Poulsen sings the lead. The early-19th century seaman’s tale “Rambling Sailor” is also interpreted, providing a satisfying juxtaposition to the mostly Appalachian-fired material.

As on their previous release, the band has come up with several tasteful instrumentals, four of which stem from Gross. “April’s Waltz” begins tentatively with purposefully scattered mandolin notes and trills, before blooming into a unusual but sensitive and evocative full-band showpiece. His “Lone Pine” is more conventional, and one wonders if there is a Lenny Breau influence at work here in Poulsen’s guitar approach.

One criticism offered is that I would much rather hear a bluegrass band singing of their own Canadian environment (as on “Elk River”) and experience rather than of the “Mississippi Shore” or of Dust Bowl vignettes of those working in peach and prune orchards of Arizona and California.

The Slocan Ramblers are a versatile bluegrass band. Offering three capable lead singers with Evans taking the vast majority, and all four members creating interesting and engaging songs and tunes while demonstrating wide-ranging instrumental talents, the group appears to be well-poised to continue their ascension within a very crowded ‘left of center’ bluegrass field.

 

Notable releases: Rodney DeCroo, Gordie Tentrees, and Brock Zeman

Brock Zeman
Pulling Your Sword Out of the Devil’s Back
Busted Flat Records

Gordie Tentrees
Less is More
Self-released

Rodney DeCroo
Campfires on the Moon
Tonic Records

By Donald Teplyske

Canadian singer-songwriters of the male, troubadour variety are as distinct as Guy Clark is from Greg Brown and Hayes Carll is from Joseph Lemay. Each one is different, but there are also tendrils binding them to a common foundation.

Reaching back four and more decades, there was Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson, Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan, and Willie Dunn (among others), all of whom had long, vibrant, and diverse careers; all but Dunn, who died in 2013, are still active. Much later, the likes of Fred Eaglesmith, Leeroy Stagger, James Keelaghan, and Corb Lund found some favour stateside, while other exceptional writers and performers—among them John Wort Hannam, Al Tuck, Steve Coffey, Mike Plume, and Craig Moreau—have received less obvious international notice.

We grow them like dandelions up here. Unfortunately, we also sometimes give them just as much attention.

In recent months, three Canadian troubadours have released albums of great intensity, each as individual as one could hope, bound by common and elemental darkness comprised of isolation, pain, and exploration.

For more than a dozen years, Ontario’s Brock Zeman has been playing music wherever they’ll have him. His albums have grown in intensity, his writing has become more comprehensive and dynamic, and he has continually delved into shadows where the greatest insights are discovered. On his eleventh release, this ‘bastard son of Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle, with a gravelly Tom Waits voice,’ as one writer described him, has created a demanding, listenable collection of songs.

With long-time collaborators Blair Hogan (guitar, piano, organ, mandolin, noise) and Dylan Roberts (drums and percussion), Zeman has created a roots variety show that bashes into the margins of rock ‘n’ roll (“Dead Man’s Shoes,” “Drop Your Bucket,” and “Sweat”) while flirting with reflections of multi-dimensional folks encountered in memory (“10 Year Flight” and “Walking in the Dark”) and imagination (the eerie, spoken-word title track that kicks off the album.) The lyrical gifts are many: “I saw your old man at the store today, and if he saw me he sure didn’t wave…it got me in the guts to see him limp his way to his truck…” and “I live in a house of ghosts that just won’t let me be; I let them in myself, but now I can’t get them to leave.”

If Ray Wylie Hubbard and Blackie & the Rodeo Kings crank your motor, Brock Zeman’s Pulling Your Sword Out of the Devil’s Back might just become a new favourite.

Gordie Tentrees comes from Whitehorse, Yukon, and while previous albums were entrenched in and inspired by his environment, Less is More is more universally focused. Not that it is any less powerful: Tentrees is writing more poetically, perhaps less tangibly connected to his reality than to the contours of his imagination. It is progression that doesn’t signal abandonment of artistic values.

The title track—with its references (via borrowed lyrics) to Townes Van Zandt and Mary Gauthier—will garner attention, as it should: it is a spectacular hurdy-gurdy of originality and inspiration. But equally impressive are slices of motivation and determination borne of strength (“Broken Hero”), frustration (“Deadbeat Dad”), and concern (“Somebody’s Child”). A reading of Gauthier’s “Camelot Hotel,” with its “cheaters, liars, outlaws, and fallen angels,” provides a framework for that which Tentrees explores through his deeply personal, original songs. References to Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Lanny McDonald, and “pull up your pants, lace up the skates” provide nostalgic Canadiana references, but Less is More transcends lyrical touchstones.

This is life and love, death and fear, punches and loving, lost guitars, batteries connected to radios, waking in the wrong bed, “wall tent whoopee with no underwear,” where “even Bill Monroe can swing.” Should strike a chord with Slaid Cleaves and Chuck Brodsky types.

Back from a self-imposed recording exile, Vancouver’s multi-dimensional Rodney DeCroo has created an album that stands with his finest, and that is no small thing. Poet, playwright, singer, and occasional lost soul, DeCroo has—over the course of his five previous recordings—firmly established himself as Western Canada’s most challenging barstool romantic, a Ron Sexsmith for the down-and-outers.

Five years ago, DeCroo released Queen Mary Trash. That double album wasn’t an easy listen—much like the artist creating the sprawling opus, it was brutal and at times terrifyingly raw. A product of his environment—for good and bad—DeCroo is the raven seeking salvation in the detritus of emotional upheaval, both his own and in those he has impacted.

Campfires on the Moon is intimate and sparse, just three instruments—acoustic guitar, double bass (from Mark Haney), and piano (Ida Nilsen, of Great Aunt Ida)—two voices—harmonies courtesy Nilsen—and one focus—redemption.

“To be young is to be reckless,” he sings in “To Be Young,” one of the album’s genuine and heartfelt compositions; but even within such a graceful reflection of a relationship, DeCroo can’t help himself: with bowed bass adding emotional heft, DeCroo admits that he still hasn’t found the meaning of his existence. Ditto, “Baby, You Ain’t Wild.”

Each song has emotional heft. We’ve all been the “Stupid Boy in an Ugly Town,” and most have us have survived the experience relatively intact. Visiting a familiar haunt in “Ashes After Fire,” DeCroo possibly finds himself in the faces he sees reflected in mugs of amber sustenance. Facing life’s debts, “Out on the Backstretch” reflects on that which one has wrought. Comparisons to Springsteen are not unjust, simply misdirected.

Rodney DeCroo has never allowed himself to hide from who he is. While his songs are not necessarily entirely autobiographical, they are shaped from his experiences and perceptions. Good thing he has an outlet.
Recommended if Jason Isbell and Vic Chesnutt do it for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!” by Barnstar!

Barnstar!
Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!
Signature Sounds
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Barnstar!, a Massachusetts-based bluegrass band, has released the first bluegrass album to take its name from a Faces song.

Splendid.

Founder and producer Zachariah Hickman (bass), Mark Erelli (guitarist), Jake Armerding (fiddle), Taylor Armerding (mandolin), and Charlie Rose (banjo) comprise Barnstar!, and while all have careers separate from the group—as troubadours, sidemen, and producers—when they come together, something quite beautiful occurs. On this, their sophomore album, Barnstar! continues to define their unusual approach to bluegrass music. They ‘get’ the music and are in no way trading in irony, but their bluegrass has an entirely different feel than , say, the Gibson Brothers or Joe Mullins’ Radio Ramblers—their harmonies are irregular when compared to those premier bands that add just a touch of the modern to their otherwise orthodox approach. They are certainly ‘in the pocket,’ but their favored cadence is atypical of mainstream bluegrass and thus doesn’t feel constrained by expectation.

A true musical collective, Barnstar!’s lineup remains consistent; that fact alone makes them unlike most bluegrass bands.
Erelli takes the majority of the lead vocals, but everyone else takes at least one as well. They are most assuredly instrumentally and vocally tight, but they project a looseness that is very appealing—they are laid back, a bit like Chatham County Line, perhaps.  Their repertoire features original material, and they aren’t afraid to beat the grasses looking for songs that may not immediately appear to have bluegrass potential: not many have gone to the Hold Steady (“Sequestered in Memphis”), Cat Stevens (“Trouble”), and Patty Griffin (“Flaming Red”) looking for bluegrass songs.

Jake Armerding (years ago a member of Northern Lights, a Northeast bluegrass mainstay) performs his “Delta Rose” to great effect. Like the best songs of star-crossed love, this roadhouse bluegrass number has longing and confusion in equal measure. His interpretation of “Flaming Red” is equally impressive: sensitive and vaguely dark. Mark Erelli’s “Barnstable County” is one of the album’s signature songs, a murder ballad that is as poetic as the most finely written prose.

“Cumberland Blue Line” is Charlie Rose’s songwriting contribution to the album; co-written with Erelli, this is the song that is most likely to be picked up by another bluegrass band—this mountain mining ballad has the mournful bluegrass quality that never goes out of style.

The album is bookended by a pair of showstoppers. “Six Foot Pine Box,” sung by Taylor Armerding and Erelli, is pensive, broody,  and reminds one a little of the Lumineers, while “Stay With Me,” Faces greatest jam, is reinvented as an all-out bluegrass stomper.

Barnstar!does things a little differently, and as a result their music isn’t what you are likely to find populating the ‘most played’ bluegrass charts. But, if one is open to something a little different, perhaps a little less precise and polished, from a group every bit as talented and instrumentally adept as the ‘name’ bands within the genre, Barnstar! may have something of interest waiting for you within Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!

“A Wanderer I’ll Stay” by Pharis and Jason Romero

Pharis and Jason Romero
A Wanderer I’ll Stay
Lula Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

One of the most respected old-time duos currently recording, Pharis and Jason Romero create acoustic music in a vein not dissimilar to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

Without drifting toward mimicry of that more renowned duo, this couple from Horsefly, British Columbia likewise captures within their finely crafted songs the richness that exists within seemingly uncomplicated songs and arrangements. A Wanderer I’ll Stay is their third album as a duo and their fifth together, and the result is a mature artistic vision, one that encompasses a range of original inspiration into a cohesive, intriguing set.

Jason Romero is a wonderfully interesting guitarist and banjo player. I’m not able to expound about the creative tunings he uses or the intricacies of his fingering technique because such is well outside my capabilities. I can attest that everything I hear within this album is flat-out faultless. Within “Backstep Indi,” Romero coaxes the gourd banjo to travel from southern traditions to East Indian experimentation, while the instrumental backing for “The Dying Soldier” is as beautifully mournful as anything I’ve recently heard.

Pharis Romero is an expressive, generous vocalist and impressive songwriter. Three of these songs are credited to her alone, while she shares songwriting credit with her husband on three others. She has a strong voice that more than holds its own within the aural environment created by the duo and their co-producer David Travers-Smith. Like Welch, she asks universal questions (“Why do girls go steady, when their hearts are not inclined”) and makes stark declarations (“Your father he’s a merchant and a thief”) that immediately establishes perspective while sketching stories and characters that engage listeners’ imaginations. When she sings, “There’s no time, honey there’s no time,” you accept her declaration.

Like Rawlings and Welch, the Romeros have the ability to create new songs that sound generations old. The forlorn drifter of “Ballad of Old Bill” could have ridden old Dan in a Civil War-era song, while “Poor Boy” is seemingly crafted from remnants of Child Ballads.

Their original material is very strong, but so are their interpretations of songs from the days of 78s; the Romeros playfully and yet still reverently reinvent familiar sounds. Jason’s mournful “Goodbye Old Paint” is from the Lomax tradition, while their influences  for interpreting “Cocaine Blues” and “The Dying Soldier” go back to the 1920s.

This time featuring Josh Rabie (fiddle), John Hurd (bass), Marc Jenkins (pedal steel), and Brent Morton (drums) on select tracks, A Wanderer I’ll Stay has a full sound although not significantly different from their previous Long Gone Out West Blues; the same intimacy is present and certainly their attention to detail has not wavered. As with that release, the packaging is beautifully executed with all practical considerations accounted.

This is a stunning acoustic folk recording.