It’s not that Toronto’s The Slocan Ramblers are old-fashioned, it’s that they’re making bluegrass that harkens back to an older need. They’re not here for the concert halls, they’re not here for the flash and glitz of the music industry, they’re here to grind out the hottest tunes they can, picking fast and furious through traditional and original pieces, and they’re here to sing their songs to hardworn people looking for release. They came out of Toronto’s gritty bluegrass scene, playing late-night bars to rowdy crowds in a city once known for its industrial pigmeat industry. The dust in banjo player Frank Evans’ voice fits perfectly into an older world of bluegrass that still remembers its roots in working class communities.
They’re more Louvin Brothers than Ricky Skaggs, and some of this comes for their long-term interest in and respect for old-time Appalachian traditions. Evans moves back and forth between clawhammer and Scruggs-style banjo, while mandolinist Adrian Gross has the speed and aggression of Big Mon himself in his playing. Thundering bassist Alastair Whitehead has a softer voice than Evans, but with a hint of world-weary wistfulness. Guitarist Darryl Poulsen’s as steady as rolling train, shoveling coal into the red-hot furnace of racing bluegrass tempos. These four young men are at the top of their game, each of them powerful enough in the genre to move these old sounds in fascinating new directions. On their new album, Queen City Jubilee, coming June 15, 2018, The Slocan Ramblers mix original and traditional songs with instrumental tunes, tapping the old vein of Appalachian music that first inspired so many early bluegrass bands, but also looking to the softer side of folk and Americana for its complex, interwoven songcraft.
To make their new album, Queen City Jubilee, titled after an old nickname for Toronto, The Slocan Ramblers retreated to Canadian engineer Andrew Collins’ studio in an old warehouse in Toronto’s West End, and worked closely with long-time mentor Chris Coole (The Lonesome Ace String Band) to hone their live-off-the-floor sound. The studio was near a chocolate factory in Toronto, so at least it smelled nice, and rumors abounded that Drake had a secret studio in the same building. That’s Toronto, where industrial history rubs shoulders with high-fashion, and nobody cares as long as there’s music to dance to and good beer to drink. Maybe that’s why the city’s embraced bluegrass so much. “There’s tons of venues presenting bluegrass here,” Evans says. “You could see it seven nights a week. Toronto’s got world class talent too, and we didn’t even realize it when we were coming up.” Encouraged by Coole, Evans started attending famed Appalachian stringband festival Clifftop as a kid, and he began to incorporate the rough-and-tumble world of Appalachian old-time music, known for rowdy all-night jams and square dance tunes played for 30 minutes straight on one chord, into the band’s bluegrass roots. “The old-time community is so fun,” Evans explains, “it’s what drives the scene. The music is good, but the hang is great.” The Slocan Ramblers have internalized that hang, that up-all-night raucousness that they learned firsthand, and blaze a new path with Queen City Jubilee. They don’t see the divides in the music, they’re just looking to write songs and play tunes that make people want to stay up all night dancing.
1. Mississippi Heavy Water Blues (3:26)
2. Just to Know (3:22)
3. Down in the Sugarbush (2:59)
4. Hillbilly Blues / Deer on the River (3:52)
5. Hill to Climb (2:53)
6. Long Chain Charlie and Moundsville (4:02)
7. First Train in the Morning (3:40)
8. New Morning (3:38)
9. Through and Through (3:00)
10. Sun’s Gonna Shine in My Back Door Someday (3:03)
11. Makin’ Home (5:17)
12. Mighty Hard Road (3:01)
13. Shut the Door (3:16)
14. Riley the Furniture Man (2:57)