“Once Upon a Time” by Circa Blue

Circa Blue
Once Upon a Time
Orange Blossom Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The band describes its music as contemporary bluegrass and that’s a fair assessment. The CD quickly jumped to #2 on the AirPlay Direct charts, indicating the quality of the release as well as listeners’ interest in this style of music. The title cut, though it made the bluegrass charts, is not the classic Monroe sound—the lyrics are not traditional bluegrass and a harmony interlude in the chorus sounds more like a ’60s rock song.

This underlines the endless argument about defining bluegrass. While it’s clear that visions differ, it’s important to remember the current state of bluegrass has always been fluid. When bluegrass and country were threatened by rock and roll, bands like Flatt & Scruggs took (or found) a position in folk music. Mac Wiseman has drifted back and forth between country and bluegrass. The music is an indication of what the artists like and, if they bend a kneee to commercialism, what sells. While there remains a strong core of traditionalists in bluegrass, a significant number of fans have broader tastes and quickly attach themselves to bands like Circa Blue.

Not that they can’t do traditional bluegrass. Fiddler Malia Furtado kicks off “Angeline the Baker” and the band turns in a strong performance, including Garrett Wren playing mandolin. “Rain and Snow” shows the strength of their harmony singing as well as giving each instrumentalist a turn up front. This a song that dates back at least to the early 1900s. It’s a great example of genre-jumping: it’s been played by a number of bluegrass bands, and was a favorite of the Grateful Dead. Another traditional number that is popular in bluegrass is “Cold Frosty Morning.” Banjoist Matt Hickman drives his part in this instrumental as, again, each instrumentalist gets a turn at showing their stuff while bassist Ashley Stewart keeps them on the beat.

Gordon Lightfoot is a popular source (“Redwood Hill”) of bluegrass music and the band does a good turn on his “Whispers of the North.” Steve Harris is a good lead singer and guitarist without having a strong mountain sound like, say, Junior Sisk. That’s not a bad thing as it smooths the harmonies. He does some good lead work as the band turns to country swing with “Tripped Stumbled and Fell.”

With good instrumentalists and great harmony singing—as well as a variety of song styles—Circa Blue’s latest is well worth a listen.

REVISED MAY2011 - 4 panel wallet - 1 disc - Right Panel.cdr