Too Big World
The Bumper Jacksons are on a roll. Folding sounds of jazz, early blues, old-time music, and country swing into an exhilarating repertoire of modern American roots music, the DC-based band has brought a hard-driving party energy to countless dance floors. With three recent Washington Area Music Awards and many dozens of jubilant live shows under their collective belt, they’ve produced their second album, Too Big World, a sweetly balanced collection of hot swing numbers, heartbreak ballads, and late-night moonshine foot-stompers.
Frontwoman and Florida native Jess Eliot Myhre (clarinet, vocals, washboard) honed her musical chops in jam sessions in the streets and clubs of New Orleans, immersed in the music that fuels the city’s humid, carnivalesque all-night parties. In 2012, she met Maryland-born fellow songcrafter Chris Ousley (guitar, vocals) in Washington, DC, and the two joined forces to form the Bumper Jacksons’ core. Chris’ background in old-time banjo and bluegrass music harmonized perfectly with Jess’s vintage jazz credentials; the songs the duo collects, arranges, and creates weave the high lonesome echoes of old rural America into the galvanizing sounds of the cities and artists that have defined American jazz, blues and swing.
On the new album, recorded in Maryland with Grammy-winning engineer Charlie Pilzer (Smithsonian Folkways’ Anthology of American Folk Music), Jess and Chris continue to harvest the roots of American music. The band, featuring Alex Lacquement on upright bass, Dave Hadley on pedal steel, Brian Priebe on trombone, and Dan Cohan on suitcase percussion, blasts through sixteen carefully crafted, expertly curated tracks; sidelong horn and pedal steel flourishes enhance the band’s brawny vocal harmonies, dynamic swells, and high-octane rhythm section. The Bumper Jacksons’ musically eclectic approach sharpens the edge of traditional tunes like the gospel scorcher “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” and the elegiac shapenote ballad “The Dying Californian.” On the Duke Ellington jazz classic “Delta Bound,” the group emphasizes the descending chromatic line and nods to Appalachian modal harmony. The Billie Holiday classic “Them There Eyes” perfectly manifests the bracingly romantic vintage jazz of Frenchman Street, as does the band’s treatment of the old bluegrass tune “Bully of the Town.” And gospel/rock legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Trouble in Mind” is a pedal-steel-enhanced stroll down a sorrowful stretch of railroad track.
Too Big World’s traditional tunes gracefully accompany a complementary assortment of Jess’s and Chris’ originals. The aptly rollicking “Coffee Mama” was written, says Chris, in personal homage to “all those no-nonsense ladies who don’t mind getting up a little early.” The soaring, heartwrenching vocals of Jess’s “Adventure Story” follow the nostalgic paths of a slowly breaking love, while Chris’ “Hell Is Hot” launches from a sepulchral introduction into a goodtime ramble through the most exciting corners of the underworld.
With so many influences from across the spectrum of American roots music, the Bumper Jacksons’ new album, Too Big World, is a virtuosic juggling act, pulled off by performers at the top of their game. As they continue to evolve and explore the frontiers and histories of the nation’s dance music traditions, they are poised to bring their music—rich, raw, and true—to the rest of America.
Bumper Jacksons: Come All You Virginia Gals
Bumper Jacksons: Bully of the Town
06/25/2015 | comments (0)
The Slocan Ramblers
As the most populous city in Canada, Toronto plays host to communities from around the world who make their home in this unassuming metropolis. And though the residents of Toronto come from all over, one thing they share is a lack of pretension, a desire to live in a city built on its merits, and not on a glitzy image. That’s a lesson learned by the young men in The Slocan Ramblers, one of the hottest roots bands in the city. They live in the West End, a neighborhood dominated by Koreans, Portuguese, and Italians, and they play working-class bluegrass roots music that harkens back to the grittiness of a city that used to be known as “Hogtown,” for all its slaughterhouses. On their new album, Coffee Creek, due out July 16 in the US, The Slocan Ramblers blend lightning fast and devilishly intricate instrumentals with the sawdust-thick vocals of singer Frank Evans, who takes lead on songs ranging from old-timey square dance numbers like “Groundhog,” to a Dustbowl classic like Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty.” “Toronto audiences don't respond to a clean, polished Nashville sound,” tune composer and mandolinist Adrian Gross explains. “They dig a lot of energy in their music, a rowdy bar vibe. They're hard to win over.” But The Slocan Ramblers have won them over, moving from a young ensemble of bluegrass pickers to one of the best known Canadian roots bands. They’ve done this by staying true to the roots of the music, not seeking to revive anything but rather to tap the rough and rowdy heart of the music.
Coffee Creek was produced by the band’s friend and mentor Chris Coole (The Foggy Hogtown Boys), a well-known banjo player and community leader in Toronto’s bluegrass and old-time scenes. Like Coole, The Slocan Ramblers bring the live, collaboratory aspects of the music to the fore, and they understand that if you polish up the music too much, you lose the raw excitement that makes it so vibrant. In the liner notes, Coole breaks it down: “What really impressed me while we were working on this album, was that, while they can pull off the precision and virtuosity that is at the backbone of bluegrass, they understand the power of the fragile moment in music. The fragile moment used to be a big part of what made an album cool–Monroe singing just beyond the edge of his voice, the moment right before you realize Vassar isn’t lost–the moment on and beyond the edge.” Listen to Evans’ worn vocals and you’ll hear some of the edge that great singers like Keith Whitley brought to the music. Or try Gross’ powerfully discordant and innovative mandolin solo on “Groundhog,” or Darryl Poulsen’s counterpoint Lester-Flatt-runs towards the end of the title track, or the rumbling beats of Alastair Whitehead’s acoustic bass on “Call Me Long Gone” (or Whitehead’s beautiful, world-weary original songs like “Elk River” or “Angeline”) to get a feel for how The Slocan Ramblers are pushing the envelope.
This is roots music without pretension, music intended to make you feel something, music to get you moving in a crowded bar. The Slocan Ramblers recorded Coffee Creek the same way they perform on stage: standing up, leaning into the music, and pushing harder and harder for that edge just beyond.
The Slocan Ramblers: "Coffee Creek"
The Slocan Ramblers: "Call Me Long Gone"
06/23/2015 | comments (0)
FY5 - Finnders & Youngberg
Eat the Moon
For decades now, Colorado has been a wellspring for American roots music, combining the traditional Appalachian old-time and honky-tonk strains of the East with the spirit of adventure and openness of the West. Colorado has served as a magnet for musicians looking to find themselves, and it’s become a place for musical kindred spirits to commune and create. FY5 –Finnders & Youngberg– represent this pioneering spirit, and with their latest effort, Eat the Moon, we can hear a newfound maturity and purpose that comes with steady gigging, dedication, and a renewed sense of purpose. Bluegrass harmonies, crisp as a mountain stream, meld with virtuosic picking and fiddling and the kind of honest acknowledgment of the tough realities of life that’s best found in traditional honky-tonk. “We’re proud to have come from the traditional folk and bluegrass school,” says bandleader Mike Finders, “yet we put all that aside and do our best to build the songs honestly, creatively, with no predetermined agenda to play this or that kind of music.” With Eat the Moon, FY5 brings us a self-assured vision of American music, rooted in tradition, but pointing to new creative directions that make it vital and relevant in today’s modern world.
If you’re looking for the source of this music, there’s a deep vein of country music that reaches all the way back to Appalachia and underpins both bluegrass and honky-tonk. But it takes an uncommon vision and a powerful band to unite the two as FY5 has done. Much of this connection is built through Aaron Youngberg’s facility on both banjo and pedal steel, but also through the gritty vocals of lead singer Mike Finders. You can hear traces of both Jimmy Martin and Lefty Frizzell in his voice, but he has a unique and unaffected sound of his own that comes through on all the original songs. Female vocalist Erin Youngberg does more than hold her own on lead vocals, and when these two voices join together as a duet, one can’t help but compare them to classic country duets like George Jones and Melba Montgomery or Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner. Combine these vocals with rapid-fire mandolin picking from Rich Zimmerman that, though clean and precise, still contains a gritty edge, and masterful fiddling from renowned violinist Ryan Drickey, and you’ve got the driving force of FY5.
On Eat The Moon, all these elements combine in a partnership that recalls a time before roots music became watered down or overly polished. FY5’s synergy of styles carries the traditions of what came before with the frontier elements of the West, giving their music a sense of freedom and adventure that sounds fresh to our ears. If you’re searching for the ensemble that will bridge the gap between the Smokies and the Rockies, between East and West, old and new, this is for you.
FY5 - "Desert Bluebell"
FY5 - "The Day Is Wide Open"
06/21/2015 | comments (0)
Fiddle & Banjo
Karrnnel Sawitsky & Daniel Koulack
Tunes from the North, Songs from the South
The name that Canadian roots duo Karrnnel Sawitsky and Daniel Koulack chose for themselves is simple and straightforward: Fiddle & Banjo. That’s because they delight in the deeply subtle interplay between their two chosen instruments, and they recognize that this interplay is at the heart of American roots music. On their new album, Tunes from the North, Songs from the South, their goal is to unite the instrumental dance music of the Canadian North that they’ve known all their lives with the songs and tunes of the American South from which they’ve drawn so much inspiration. The music of Appalachian stringbands and blazing bluegrass bands has taken deep root in Canadian cities, and a new generation of artists like April Verch and The Duhks have long been fusing this American roots music with the old-time dance tunes of Canada. Fiddler Karrnnel Sawitsky is in a perfect spot to do this, having grown up immersed in Canadian old-time fiddling, particularly the barndance tunes of the Ukrainian communities he grew up a part of in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Sawitsky toured as part of a family band of fiddlers growing up, but is better known now for his boundary-pushing fiddling and compositions, as featured in his acclaimed Canadian fiddle ensemble The Fretless.
Banjo player Daniel Koulack came to Winnipeg at 3 years old in 1968, and over the years has come to be known as one of the best clawhammer banjo players in Canada, also with a reputation for pushing boundaries. The two met at a late-night jam session at a Canadian folk music camp and found a likeness in how they approached the roots music they loved. This is their second album together and it showcases not only the instrumental virtuosity they bring to the music, but also their careful taste. They’re not afraid to focus on the silence between the notes, to craft a song that leaves space to breath. In this they’re ably helped by star Canadian folk singer Joey Landreth of The Bros. Landreth. Landreth, who used to play in a Saskatchewan-based country band with Sawitsky some years back, threw himself into the album’s songs, creating thoughtful and beautifully meditative versions of classic Appalachian folk songs like “Red Rocking Chair,” “Little Birdie,” Skip James’ “Killin’ Floor,” or the seemingly-always-topical “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live.” Under Landreth’s vocals, Sawitsky and Koulack lay a bed of interlocking fiddle and banjo lines like finely crafted latticework, but it’s on the album’s many instrumentals that their duets truly shine. It’s no small feat for a clawhammer banjo player to be able to match a fiddler on instrumental tunes, and Koulack’s up for anything here, picking furiously on French-Canadian or Métis dance tunes, known for their tricky rhythms and rapid switchbacks. It’s a tour-de-force that sounds as natural as a front-porch picking session, for neither artist here is interested in showy virtuosity for its own sake. This commitment to artistry shows as well in the album’s compositions, which range from meditative waltzes to free-wheeling reels.
Tunes from the North, Songs from the South is an album based on the interplay between two master musicians. There’s a playfulness to this music that comes from the ease with which each artist approaches their instrument, but also from the joy of making music with a like-minded visionary. The goal is to make something that sounds both effortless and timeless. Doing all this and uniting the old-time traditions of two countries is no small task, but Karrnnel Sawitsky & Daniel Koulack –Fiddle & Banjo– are clearly up to the challenge.
Fiddle & Banjo: "Little Birdie"
Fiddle & Banjo: GroundHog
06/20/2015 | comments (0)
Morning In A New Machine
With a reputation as the epicenter for “NYC’s unexpected contemporary folk revival” (Wondering Sound), the Jalopy Theatre occupies a tiny corner of Brooklyn, an unshakable nod to New York’s past that recently gained notoriety from the Coen Brother’s film Inside Llewyn Davis. At the center of the Jalopy’s new folk revival is popular New York banjoist (and Jalopy instructor), Hilary Hawke and her collaborative musical partner, Brian Geltner. Their old-timey duo, DUBL HANDI, (pronounced “double-handy”) appropriately named after an old washboard company out of Columbus, OH, is releasing their second album, Morning in a New Machine. Setting rhythmic grooves to traditional, well-loved songs, Dubl Handi’s revitalized roots music has been drawing in new audiences with their upbeat, danceable arrangements that focus on the interplay between Hawke’s renowned banjo playing and Geltner’s diverse talents as a percussionist.
“We take old-time, bluegrass and folk tunes that we love,” Hawke explains, “the ones that we can envision people dancing to or feeling in their bones, and we make them meaningful to us by sometimes adding lyrics, changing the feel, and playing our hearts out”. Yet, Hawke and Geltner are doing more than repurposing old songs; they are also adding originals, like the lazy lullaby waltz “No Sleep” and tenacious train song “Drive Away the Blues,” to the mix, and radically re-envisioning the arrangements of the older songs.
Dubl Handi experience roots music as a vehicle for creative expression and robust playfulness. By marrying Hilary Hawke’s bracingly rhythmic banjo and Brian Geltner’s percussive multi-instrumentation, the duo nod to the roots of the banjo’s percussive history in American roots music. With their new album, Morning in a New Machine, Dubl Handi set the ever-changing landscape of folk music in modern tones.
Dubl Handi: "No Sleep"
Dubl Handi: "Cumberland Gap"
06/18/2015 | comments (0)
The Appalachian Mountains, perhaps the most iconic strongholds of traditional music in North American history, form a direct line running from eastern Canada down through Alabama. They are the backbone of a body of ballads and tunes that define Americana and have heavily influenced Canadian roots music as well. Few are more conscious and intentional in their journey through these Appalachian histories and musical treasures than KAIA KATER. Born in Quebec of mixed Afro-Caribbean ancestry, she now resides in Toronto and attends school in West Virginia, where she ardently studies balladry and traditional dance. As an original songwriter, she works to incorporate her perspective as one of the few people of color in roots music into the complex racial history of the traditions themselves. Her music combines beautifully subtle old-time banjo with soft sensibilities, mixing elements of both Canadian and American historical traditions with a decidedly modern sound. Even now, preparing for her tour and the release of her first album SORROW BOUND in the US, she is high on the mountains, traveling deep into the wilderness of the past.
Kaia Kater is lauded for being one of the youngest performers in the roots scene, and at 21 years old, there’s not much arguing her progeny. But what’s special is that she’s blowing up the roots music scene in spite of her age, not because of it. Her old-time banjo-picking skills, deft arrangements, and songwriting abilities have landed her in the national spotlight on both Canadian and American soil. Kaia recorded Sorrow Bound, her debut full-length album, with producer, mentor, and fellow musician Chris Bartos (Jonathan Byrd, Barr Brothers, Sarah Harmer), over an intense five-day stretch. “We already knew my sound was going to be different,” Kaia says. “I wanted to keep it unique to me, but true to the genre.”
The title track, “When Sorrows Encompass Me Round” was a line taken from an old-time song, which inspired Kaia to write entirely new lyrics, delving into stories of slavery and longing. As a whole, it encompasses the very spirit of Kaia Kater’s music. Sorrow Bound includes a French-Canadian song in French, several traditional ballads, and many compositions of her own—although such is her understanding of the genre that they are nearly indistinguishable from the traditional songs.
Kaia’s individualized approach to the traditional music of Canada and America is fully grounded in a deep respect for the genre. As she traces the connections between the two countries, and between the past and present, Kaia Kater finds the pulse that runs through the Appalachian Mountains.
Kaia Kater: "When Sorrows Encompass Me Round"
Kaia Kater: "Sun to Sun"