A pair of intimate shows exhibit the range and power of bluegrass duo, Blake & Groves. Honest Tune was there for both of them.
Words/ Photos: Jake Cudek
Blake & Groves
The Kitchen Sink Studio
Santa Fe, NM
Blake & Groves is a traditional bluegrass duo comprised of Greg Blake and KC Groves. West Virginia native, Greg Blake is an inspiration, as his vocal resonance and stringed performance echo with “that drawl” that pulls in anyone who is looking for the authentic musicality of the old school. Partner, KC Groves, founding member of the all-girl, old-timey, bluegrass band Uncle Earl, is certainly nothing to scoff at either. Switching between mandolin and guitar, while balancing out the high end to the low tone of Blake, this bluegrass girl represents the power and authority that reflects her genuine passion for the genre.
Billed as “The Blue Grass and Green Chilies” tour, these two powerhouses hit the Southwest for the better part of November, bringing with them their brand of story-telling traditional bluegrass, all the while looking for that elusive, magical ingredient Appalachia players of yore probably never tasted: Green Chilies.
One of the earlier stops in the Land of Enchantment was the newly revamped Kitchen Sink Studios. Long-time producer and musician, Jono Manson, who has worked with the likes of Blues Traveler, Warren Haynes, Pete Seeger and a plethora of who’s who in the entertainment industries of both music and film, operates this space and offers a unique opportunity for artists. By creating a space for musicians to both perform in front of an in-studio audience while simultaneously producing a recording session for future use, his vision reflects his love for music as an experience, not just an end product. As show time drew near, Manson left his perch at the controls and entered the performance space, explaining his vision and a few parameters for the evening’s presentation, specifically reminding attendees of the documentary aspect as he pointed to the various microphones strategically placed about the room. After his brief reminder of the rules for the night, he introduced the opener for the night, Zikey and The Condor.
These two young, talented lads, surprisingly, needed no time to warm up, as they jumped right in, unintimidated, displaying their chops on banjo and fiddle, respectively, laying out some impressive originals that had even the distinguished, and discerning audience members bobbing their heads. Of note was the fact that they incorporated tunes, both original and covered, which reflected their appreciation and respect for the generations of players who preceded their role in the new school. At the close of their set, they thanked the crowd and again thanked their patriarch, Manson, who, by their own admission, had produced their first album for free.
After a short intermission, Manson again returned to the stage and ushered in the main event of the night, Blake & Groves. At this point, instead of immediately starting up, both members took a little time to give their own personal history about the man at the board, expressing warm accounts of recording and sharing creative inspiration over years of interaction. The resounding applause that followed showed that those in attendance had gleaned an insightful passage into the nature of this man and his endeavor to foster music, not money.
Opening their set with Bill Monroe’s “Can’t You Hear Me Calling,” instant recognition and smiles could be seen throughout the room. Exchanging lines and taking their time showed that these two were here to play and by the focus of those seated, they were there to listen. Continuing with the traditional canon, The Carter Family’s “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” presented its tale of the loss of love and tragedy and these two did it justice every step of the way.
Before starting the next tune, Groves asked for a little audience participation in two forms. First, she revealed that the moniker of their current tour was the “Blue Grass Green Chilies Tour” and at all stops on the journey they had requested that their audiences yell out the best place for green chilies in their locale. New Mexicans aren’t shy about their chilie verde appreciation, so as one might expect, there were multiple shout outs, both congruous and opposing. Luckily no brawls broke out. The second request came in the form of a sing-along invitation. Although the title was not revealed, Groves assured the audience that they would know what to say when the time was right. “New Mexico,” a tune penned by Groves, is an easy-going number in structure, which gives way to the power of the vocal abilities of Blake as the softness of Groves provides balance, creating a moment that left these locals smiling, as they joined in on the chorus.
“Hey Porter,” a Blake original, with its high stepping pace, moved many in the crowd to dance as much as they could in their seats, and again showed Blake’s ability to conjure the old-time cornerstone emotion of great bluegrass, both in vocals and playing, as Groves matched note for note.
“Northern Lights” is a song Groves wrote about her first experience seeing this amazing phenomenon in her home state of Michigan as an adolescent. As she explains, this tune was originally composed as a reminder of how it made her feel to see such a sight, but since then, has taken on a broader meaning. A culmination of those experiences that move people viscerally. This lilting number delivered both in strum and story.
Moving through fifteen songs, the talents of these two artists was apparent from the start and did not let up. They are a perfect balance to each other, and their ability to modulate between fast tracks and slow ballads reflects their love of the genre, knowing the tunes, not just playing them. The tales that are woven between songs reveal a history that is genuine and make this partnership authentic, a demonstration that continues on off stage. As with any music, when a number is played with intimate appreciation, the songs almost sing themselves and seeing this duo bring the traditional to life reminds that this is a living language and whether new school or old school, grade “A” is the same.
Closing out the night, Blake & Groves welcomed Zikey and The Condor back to the stage for a shared instrumental breakdown that produced smiles amid the quartet. There were no missed strides or confusion, each stepping up in perfect time to present their contribution, rousing each other as the joyful tune swirled. In completion, the seat-anchored audience stood and gave the four players their just desserts.
Blake & Groves
Following The Kitchen Sink Studio gig, the group made their way south to the metropolitan city of Albuquerque for a private house concert. This sort of gig is often bypassed by many due to the perception that the magic is lost without a stage or production that a proper venue holds. It can be easily argued that the inception of the musical experience evolved from such surroundings as these and is what has been the elemental foundation for roots music like bluegrass. The familial space warmly invites the listener and the player in, while blurring the lines between the two, as would be the result of this very performance.
Arriving, the homeowner welcomed the two into his abode with refreshments and salutations. Examining the room, its three rows of chairs, empty couch, and standing room towards the back, Groves inquired as to how many he expected to attend, with the proprietor acknowledging that he had no idea and it may turn out to be, in fact, no one. Undaunted by this news, Groves retained her smile and, joined by Blake, retired to their chairs to tune and go over the evening’s set list. Mid-preparation, a tall, thin man, case in hand, entered and acknowledged the two seated. From their expression it was evident that they knew this newcomer. Ezra Bussmann was his name, and, opening his larger than normal hard case, mando and fiddle were his game, the two housed side by side in red velvet. When asked how these folks new each other, Groves replied that Bussmann was one of her favorite people to make music with and that his father was “one helluva mando builder.” It was easy to see that music was in this man’s blood and added an element that would make this night differ significantly from the studio performance.
As it turned out, this was not just a simple living room show, but rather a celebration of the 40th birthday of Matt, the man whose family had opened their house to friend and stranger alike for the special occasion. As time pressed on, slowly but surely, a consistent stream of people arrived, carrying adult elixirs, food, and in some cases children, and soon the gig space filled and then spilled over into the auxiliary area of the backyard, where additional amplification, fire pit, and quintessential hay bales had been set up. Conversations could be easily overheard and it became obvious that many were strangers too each other, but were connected unknowingly by the man whose birthday was being celebrated.
Starting before sunset, the trio, Blake, Groves, and Bussmann, took to the head of the room and, in classic humility and mannered address, thanked Matt and his family for opening up their home and wished him “feliz cumpleanos” before getting started, just as the night before, with the invocation of Bill Monroe’s “Can’t You Hear Me Calling”. Also like the previous evening, recognition was instantaneous and quickly filled the few remaining seats and drove others to the standing room area. This version differed significantly, as the group, now three, provided extra room for the fiddler to stand out. The contingency of smokers and talkers graciously remained outside, enjoying the unseen performance from the backyard.
Using the set list produced from the Santa Fe performance as a framework, many of the tunes were repeated, but only in selection. The instrumental sections were extended and no one seemed hurried to get to the next piece. The contributions by Bussmann were tasteful and appropriate and demonstrated his discerning ear. The open conversation between the three even led to his taking turns at being a member of audience, enjoying the craft of his long-standing friends. It was refreshing to see that Blake & Groves didn’t rely on a canned experience when presenting their show. This was evident by their ability to shift to a looser format and execution. Although there was some overlap, many of the shared stories differed from the night prior. In keeping with the theme of their tour, they did however take the time to inquire as to the best green chilie location in the Duke City, again followed by a discorded response. The laid back atmosphere produced more conversation than one-sided accounts between the intimate setting of performer and listener, as the line of distinction disintegrated further.
Before closing out the set, Groves informed the audience that they would be returning for another and that for all the guests who had brought their own instruments, the opportunity for a friendly jam would close out the night. This declaration brought many of those who had been glued to their seats for the entirety of the set huge smiles.
With that, Blake took control of the vocal helm, and called out to the neighboring county with “Freeborn Man.” Lung-busting, extended voluminous vocals are the centerpiece of this tune and sets Blake in the light of more myth than man. By the response of the spectators, everyone was fully encapsulated in this moment of power and awe, which was accentuated by the close quarters.
Dissolving into the crowd, both Blake and Groves took time to catch up with many in attendance. One man claimed that he had been seeing the two of them perform for nearly twenty years and by his detailed recollection, the obviousness of his truth stunned the two in humility and appreciation. There were also others who had found their way and in one way or another were connected to these players independently, producing genuine surprise and exhilaration, like running into old friends on a random street in a forlorn town.
Satiated with refreshment, both physically and emotionally, the trio returned to the helm, delivering the continued conveyance of song and spirit, pulling again from their crafted canon and the old school textbook, including “Salt Creek,” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” At this point, this was a room of people enjoying company and any disassociation had been dissolved. This was not a one sided perception, as the band began to take requests, further cultivating the sense of musical family. Although not requested, the band led the room through the most well-known cover of the night, John Denver’s “Country Roads.” This brought everyone together, singing the chorus in rollicking unison. Covering Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” satiated many a Dead Head in the room. This final act transitioned effortlessly into the family jam, as cases were opened and all sorts of implements were tuned and prepared. At this point, the role of headliner shifted from Blake & Groves, sliding them into the participatory role, with the assembled crowd taking the lead, and reminding all of the great social power this music born from family picking event still carries to this day.
Roots-rockers Caleb Stine & The Brakemen will release their latest album, Time I Let It Go, Novemeber 7. The band will celebrate the release of the album with a show at the Mobtown Ballroom in their hometown of Baltimore, MD. Brooks Long & the Mad Dog No Good, and the Weisstronauts will open.
Time I Let It Go was recorded when the band decamped to Vermont over the winter. The recording process was captured by filmmaker Michael Patrick O’Leary and will be released as a documentary about the band and what it means to make music.
The new album showcases the band’s timeless style that is colored with deeply personal lyrics which lead one on a journey through the soul of American music. Time I Let It Go moves with ease from the foot-stomping funk of “Hey There Mister,” to the brooding intensity of “Edge of the Riverside,” to the unrestrained joy of simple pleasures in “Butter.” It is an album for all four seasons and every mood.
Track Listing for Time I Let It Go:
Hey There Mister
Edge of the Riverside
You Bet He Was My Friend
Eight Hour Haul
Baby’s Got the Business
Place You Used to Call Home
Time I Let It Go
Check out Honest Tune’s exclusive premiere of “Hey There Mister” from Time I Let It Go:
The time for talking about how much Jason Isbell has changed since his Drive-By Truckers days is long past. Yes, gone are the whiskey-soaked, carousals from his time in the seminal Southern band. Also in the past is the triumphant story of his hard-won sobriety and newfound life as a successful solo artist.
In their place, a shelf-full of all the hardware the 2014 Americana Music Awards had to offer, in addition to numerous critical accolades and a new life as happy family man. Also: a new album called Something More Than Free.
His 2013 breakout album Southeastern set the bar extremely high, and the follow-up, Something More Than Free, manages to reach, and perhaps hurdle, it.
Thematically, the album is a bit lighter than its predecessor, but it shares a tonal similarity. Isbell has hit a comfortable creative stride that gives the impression he and his listeners are in the midst of a fertile stage of artistic output akin to Neil Young’s early 1970s oeuvre.
Throughout Something More Than Free, Isbell constructs a now-trademark rustic realm, a world inhabited by people yearning, searching and hoping for something better, and a few who think they have it figured out. These are hardscrabble folks living with regrets and seeking redemption.
He creates such vividly imagined characters that at the conclusion of nearly every track, you feel like you’ve just finished a novel or movie, or stepped out of someone else’s dream. These characters—the guy who feels fortunate to have lost three fingers in an accident so he could get a court settlement (“The Life You Chose”), the teenage parents who can’t tell the difference between the “sacred and profane” (“Children of Children”), the guy who just wants to leave town because there’s “nothing here that can’t be left behind” (“Speed Trap Town”) and others—are instant intimates. Isbell’s craft allows these characters to come to life and for you to step into it.
Isbell is a singular voice, but it’s hard not to hear his forbearers living through him. Hints of Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer” (a song he’s performed live) live inside of “Flagship” in more ways that one. John Prine’s wit suffuses “If It Takes A Lifetime.” And so on. Neil Young’s work informs here, his contemporary Ryan Adams there.
Sonically, Isbell and his band, including wife Amanda Shires on fiddle, are in a comfortable zone, shifting easily from melancholic ruminations to rowdy rockers and country swing.
“Children of Children,” with a string section that floats eerily over Isbell’s slide guitar and soaring solo, is one of many standout tracks on Something More Than Free. Elsewhere, he adopts old-time, bluegrass-tinged country stomp with “If It Takes a Lifetime” and raunchy rock with “Palmetto Rose.” Throughout, his melodies seem like they’ve been there forever, pulled from the heavens by his pen.
Something More Than Free is continuation of the songwriting maturity found on Southeastern, so much so that Isbell might be wise to make some room on that shelf.
Something More Than Free will be released July 17 on Southeastern Records.
Members: Martin Earley (Guitar/Vocals), Devin Mauch (Percussion/Vocals), Calin Peters (Cello/Vocals)
Sounds Like: A rock-show cloaked in heartfelt lyrics, up-tempo passionate melodies, and sublime harmonies delivered with a folky-Americana edge.
For Fans Of: Shovels & Rope, Lumineers, Houndmouth, Avett Brothers
Bio: Formed in 2011 by Martin Earley and Devin Mauch. The pair worked through some line-up changes and a year of transition, before they added cellist Calin Peters which solidifed the band’s line-up and sound. The new line-up gelled quickly around their heartfelt lyrics, up-tempo passionate melodies, and sublime harmonies, all of which highlight the band’s first full length album, A Wolf in the Doorway, due out April 21. The twelve tracks on the band’s upcoming album are a definitive statement of the band’s powers and will surely establish the trio as one of the best new bands of the year.
Albums: A Wolf in the Doorway (due out April 21, 2015),The Ballroom Thieves EP (2013), The Devil & The Deep EP (2012)
Check out “Archers” and “Oars to the Seas” from the upcoming album.
For the most well attended event in it’s 13-year history last week in Nashville, the Americana Music Association’s Conference and Festival succeeded in large part due to the broadening of its tent, and a sense of inclusivity that has eluded the organization and its events in the past.
When it began, the Americana Music Association sought to codify a style of roots and country music that was thriving outside of the Nashville mainstream of manufactured pop acts. It was an attempt by the music industry to redefine alt-country (whatever that is) and roots music under one umbrella. Under their auspices, they created a new radio chart, and a new but necessarily vague genre that would help artists reach their audiences via radio play, publicity and record sales. An industry event from the get-go.
But over the past 13 years, the effort has at times seemed insular—the same artists, most of them coming from the same sincere songwriting school of the folk music world, or from what was then called alt-country, populating the showcases and awards ceremony year after year. A little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n roll, with a dash of bluegrass and a healthy dose of folk. That approach eschewed otherwise valid musical forms that fit their mission statement. Blues, for example, was relegated to one or two artists, save for the blues elements that seeped into everyone’s music. Gospel was unheard of. And in the land of the tightly constructed and serious as hell three-minute songs, the word “jam” was virtually verboten.
But this year, the event kicked off with Leftover Salmon performing at the Ryman Auditorium with a slew of guests on hand to celebrate the anniversary of their Nashville Sessions recording, which came out in 1999. That record featured a who’s who of Nashville talent who joined in to celebrate that band’s country and bluegrass roots— the same roots that they synthesized into their self-styled “Poly-Ethnic Cajun Slamgrass” style. Poly-ethnic Cajun Slamgrass? As perpetual awards show host Jim Lauderdale would say, “Now that’s Americana!”
So it was fitting that this band, a mainstay of the jamband circuit since it was a thing, would help to establish the inclusivity of the weekend. On stage with them, there was Taj Mahal bringing the house down. There was mandolin wizard Sam Bush, blazing and leading a trio of mandolin players. There was former Little Feat keyboardist and new band member Bill Payne. There was Widespread Panic’s lead singer John Bell belting out “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” Other guests ranged from bluegrass legends like Del McCoury to jamband godfather Col. Bruce Hampton.
This collaborative affair set the tone for the awards show the following night, and for the next five nights of artist showcases in different music clubs around town. The tent was all of a sudden bigger.
Despite the sometimes narrow atmosphere, the Americana tent has been an ever expanding one that ebbs and flows to bring in, and sometimes shun, certain artists. It’s a fluid term, not a strict genre.
The Leftover Salmon example exuded into the rest of the weekend, with the event showcasing artists who represent the jammier side of the equation and also expanded the “membership” by parading more musicians coming from outside of the realms of folk and country music to include more blues, gospel, and latino music.
It helped that Ry Cooder, who has long been a champion of varied forms of Americana music and what could come to be known as world music, was a part of the stellar house band that also included Buddy Miller and Don Was.
What also helped was the inclusion of two lifetime achievement award winners. With renowned accordionist Flaco Jimenez the association rightly brought Latin styles like tejano and conjunto into the fold. Taj Mahal provided the most rousing song of the night, showing that his lifetime of blending blues with forms from around the world belongs in the Americana tent. Given this broader palette, tunes like “Coal Miner’s Daughter” performed by the Loretta Lynn were afforded even more gravity, a stronger pillar due to the additional support whereas it might have been just “old Nashville” in another setting.
Other guests that night included Jackson Browne, Robert Plant singing along with Patty Griffin, soul sounds from St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Sturgill Simpson bringing his psychedelic infused update of outlaw country music to the fore, Valerie June and her bluesy twang, and of course Jason Isbell, who swept the awards by winning best song, best album and best artist of the year.
Part of the insular nature of the event in the past has been its tendency to focus on the Nashville and Austin contingent. That’s natural, because those two locales, each of which loves to claim the “music city” title, are home to the most of the industry players who make up the organization—the record companies, publicists, managers, and yes, a lot of the artists.
This year, though, it didn’t seem so polarizing. Musicians from Mississippi, in particular, made a major impact.
Meridian, Miss. native Jimmie Rodgers was honored at the awards ceremony with the President’s award, presented by Philadelphia, Miss. native Marty Stuart. Stuart proudly showed off a lantern that had once belonged to Rodgers. Tupelo, Miss. native Paul Thorn gave an impassioned speech lauding Mississippi artists that same night.
The next night featured a showcase entirely dedicated to Mississippi artists. Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band showed that ancient grooves were still alive and well, and safe in her stead. Then 83-year old Leo “Bud” Welch brought downhome gospel blues that seared with authenticity. Luther Dickinson performed solo, but brought out Thomas to play drums for much of the set. Later T-Model Ford’s grandson Stud did the same. Dickinson has made his mark as lead guitarist for the North Mississippi Allstars and one-time member of the Black Crowes. But lately he’s been delving deeply into producing other artists and has released a pair of solo records, one of them consisting entirely of instrumental tunes. The most recent, Rock n Roll Blues, provided the material for much of the set.
In between songs, Dickinson regaled the audience with stories of growing up with his father, the legendary Jim Dickinson. His set was like a master class in Mississippi music history, as he explained how he learned about music hands-on growing up in a musical family.
Marty Stuart and Webb Wilder (a Hattiesburg, Miss. native, who also served as emcee) turned in their sets before the show closed out with Paul Thorn, who jumped into the crowd to close the showcase with a rousing hug fest among the fans that reached the fevered pitch of a tent revival. It was a showcase that showed almost all of the branches of Americana, that just so happened to come from one state. Blues, rock, country, gospel and folk all bubbled up in the musical stew that night.
Just as Leftover Salmon infused the week with some improvisational workouts early on, other bands took the stages and sounded like they owed as much to the Grateful Dead as Flatt & Scruggs as well. And that’s only natural; the Dead were “big-tent” Americana long before industry executives cooked up the term.
Todd Snider’s new band The Hard Working Americans were nominated for Duo or Group of the Year and performed at the awards show. But the real show came later that night at the sprawling Cannery Ballroom. Billed as “Todd Snider and Friends” the group was essentially the Hard Working Americans, sans guitarist Neal Casal. Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools was the guardian of the groove all night, and undoubtedly the instigator for the chooglin jams the collective swept through over the course of an extraordinary long-for-a-showcase set of about an hour. The band’s best tunes were old classics that even in their selection exuded the definition of Americana—Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues,” JJ Cale’s “Crazy Mama” and, fitting for the circumstances, Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”
Given Snider’s songwriting pedigree, it’s odd that their debut album consists almost entirely of cover tunes. But at times Snider, masked behind large sunglasses and a floppy hat, would gleefully float to the side of the stage and sway and watch his compatriots as they spaced out, seemed as if he’s trying on a new suit himself.
They were joined by special guests too. Vince Herman of, yep, Leftover Salmon joined in for “Georgia On A Fast Train” and former Yonder Mountain String Band mandolinist Jeff Austin furiously added to “Is This Thing Working?” Elizabeth Cook, and her hairdo, sat in all night on background vocals and various percussion instruments.
It was an Americana showcase, but there was…well, dancing! For an audience that is usually satisfied with some vigorous but thoughtful head nodding, to loosen them up spoke to the fact that Snider and company were doing something right, and that the Americana family is maybe more diverse than once believed.
In the same space a few nights later, the unfortunately named but fantastic anyway Trigger Hippy brought similar rootsy blues jams to the stage. Fronted by Joan Osborne and guitarist/keyboardist Jackie Greene, Trigger Hippy hit some of the same notes—loose limbed roots rock with notes of blues and country. In other words, Americana. That Osborne has toured with The Dead and Greene has played with Phil Lesh and The Black Crowes was evident as the band was as comfortable creating space as recreating songs, and they even belted out a Grateful Dead cover with a rousing “Sugaree.”
There were of course lots of singer-songwriters on hand, a few really good bluegrass bands, some earnest roots rockers. Those folks were already in the family. But to allow some of the freakier cousins a seat at the table was a welcome accomplishment for this year’s fest.
It’s an elusive character, explains Railroad Earth mandolinst John Skehan. He has been talking about the band’s new album and that live moment when the beauty of music is revealed; that moment when everything clicks in a song, the good, the bad, the bum notes, and all. It is that place that allows things in a song to free up, when everyone in the band is on the same wavelength and true musical bliss is found. It is at that moment when a little spark ignites. Skehan says it happens in that little place in between knowing the song just enough, but not quite enough. On their latest album, Last of the Outlaws, Railroad Earth found that elusive character over and over, crafting one of the strongest studio albums of their career. It is an album that finds the band showcasing their strengths, the always glorious songwriting of singer/ guitarist Todd Shaeffer and the live powers and improvisational chops of bassist Andrew Altman, fiddler Tim Carbone, multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling, drummer Carey Harmon, and Skehan. Railroad Earth are quite simply the closest current thing we have to The Band today with the way they tap into the soul of Americana music and their ability to subtly infuse all that they do with a bluegrass inspired, mountain born, folksy-twang, and rocking heart all at once. And Last of the Outlaws is the perfect representation of that musically inclusive, Americana soul.
The band entered the studio in October of 2012 during some down time from the road. They found a studio near their western New Jersey home that suited their needs. That combined with the knowledge that they were going to be releasing the album on their own label helped ease some of the pressure of working under a deadline and allowed the band the freedom to find a space where we could all play at the same time and record everything closer to the live environment. They imposed a rough end date of January (which is when they would be getting back out on the road) and spent the fall months of 2012 holed up in the studio working on Last of the Outlaws.
Whereas on their previous self-titled album in which they begin with an extensive pre-production process, this time around Skeehan says they started out just bouncing ideas around, just going in and playing, trying things out and recording them. This approach allowed songs to grow organically and has given the album an extremely live feel. Skehan said that throughout the process songs morphed and changed many times as the band worked out the original riffs and melodies of each tune as they combined new ideas with old and created brand new tunes every time they were he mentions the brooding, piano driven, title track, “Last of the Outlaws, “as a song that evolved drastically over their time in the studio. He said it became something “very, very different from the original fills and riffs they were playing around on.” After jamming on some of the ideas and musical themes they had originally worked up for the song, they set it aside for few days until singer and guitarist Shaeffer came into the studio with a brand new song he had worked up with the ideas they had been fooling around with. This new song while rooted in the basic ideas they had been toying with, was something completely different and now had the familiar slow, jazzy feel that would become “Last of the Outlaws.”
Skehan says that it was the ability to just play, and get into each song that truly shaped the album and gave it its personality. “We would spend a couple of hours each day experimenting, just playing,” he says. “We had a couple of free-wheeling weeks like that where we did not know where exactly what was going to be on the record and it was pretty liberating. We were just playing and not thinking is this the take? Is this the song? What will this become next week? Instead it was just this jam that we were working through.”
This free-wheeling nature led to the band relaxing and stretching their exploratory legs out and allowing each song to try on many musical guises before finally taking shape. The throbbing, joyous beat of “Monkey” was original recorded with the entire band crowded around a single microphone in an old-time jug-band style. The rambling stripped down approach never fully took hold. They redid it with the regular full-band line-up and an entirely different character of the song emerged.
“Grandfather Mountain” was what Skehan called “very different” for them as a slow ballad. Originally the band did not intend for the track to have the lengthy, improvised section on the end of the song, but Skehan remembers that Shaeffer came into the studio with the arrangement of the song fully finished and the band just let [themselves] run with the end, and then sat back and said well, it’s kind of long, but realized [they] were digging into it the same way [they] would live and thought â€˜this has some moments happening here, let’s just keep them . For Skehan it was just a reflection of what the band was up to that particular day, and they were just enjoying them moment and seeing where it would go. The lengthy, improvised section also gave the band the courage to pursue another idea they had been toying around with.
The highlight of the album is the twenty-one minute multi-part suite, “All that;’s Dead May Live Again/ Face with a Hole.” The seven parts of this majestic, long-form, musical suite is the most ambitious, inspiring piece of music Railroad Earth has ever put down in the studio. “There was a notion of saying let’s see if we can work on a long, openly composed piece, but that still contains some elements of improvisation that connect all these different ideas and w they can all hang together and work,” says Skehan.
There was some skepticism among the band that something that complex may not work in the realm of the rest of the album, but after the success of the lengthy section in “Grandfather Mountain,” the band realized, “the longer piece was more likely going to work and fit in with everything. It did have some of those more experimental elements and orchestral elements, but there is also some rock ‘n’ roll happening as you get to the end of ‘Face with a Hole.'” The piece does more than simply work; it helps define the entire character of the album. In its twenty-one minutes it provides a deep introduction into who Railroad Earth is a band. From the simple penny-whistle intro through the piano-led conclusion of “All thatss Dead May Live” that gives way to the raging intensity of “Face with a Hole,” before settling back down with the lush, sparse outro “In Paradisum,” all facets of the band are revealed, the lyrical dexterity of Shaeffer, the multi-instrumental prowess of Goessling, the tight rhythm section of drummer Harmon and bassist Altman, the dashing flourishes of Carbone’s fiddle, and the adventurous hand of John Skehan on the mandolin and piano.
The multi-part opus is also one of the only times in recording history that the benefit of CD will be ever touted over vinyl. With the space limitations on vinyl, one can only imagine the twenty-minute suite being segregated to one side of the album, or even worse being neutered and split into two halves. But by being able to keep it as one whole piece, and better yet, by being able to perfectly place it in the middle of the album, the piece serves to hold the whole album together. It gives the album an almost live show feel which is perfect. [Author’s note: This will be the last time I praise the benefits of CDs over vinyl. Ever.]
The process of recording live as a group was one that appealed to Skehan, and one that he felt brought out the best in the band. “I have always enjoyed what the ensemble does together when recording,” he says. “To me that is always the most interesting when you can go home and listen to the rough mixes of things, to hear us working out new stuff and capturing it in the moment that is sometimes when we get our best results.”
There was no better example of this then while recording the title track. After figuring out the arrangement the band went in and blasted through a couple of takes. On their way back into the control room engineer Dean Rickard commented to the band, “That’s an impressive piece of music.” Skehan and the rest of the band quickly recognized Rickard was right. “We all realized that we shouldn’t try again as we will try too hard and didn’t think we needed to add any overdubs. We decided to just leave it along, and with the exception of some bass clarinet added by Goessling that is the take that appears on the album.”
Last of the Outlaws is a high-water mark for Railroad Earth, an album that exemplifies what it is that makes the band up musically, and a strong statement where they are going from here. It was an album that was created where the band is most comfortable, which is together, instruments in hand, just playing live with each other.
It is this dynamic that truly gives them their power and it is what made this such a special album for Skehan to be a part of. “To me my favorite part of the process is while we are in it, while we are doing it. Hearing the songs coming out of Todd and hearing not quite finished lyrics and thinking, ‘Wow, where is he going with this.’ And then when I hear it finished the next day it is always ‘Wow, I hear where he is it.’ It is the most exciting when you are doing it. It is what is then. I don’t worry about thinking about what I could change.”
Much of the narrative about Bombadil lately has focused on the bandâ€™s return after a forced hiatus due to nerve damage in bassist Daniel Michalakâ€™s hands.Â While that is part of the bandâ€™s story, if one focuses on that they miss the truly important narrative of Bombadil.Â Since they first burst into the musical universe out of Duke University (via a semester abroad in Bolivia) they have continually released great, quirky albums that have flown under the radar, yet can stand shoulder to shoulder with the yearâ€™s best albums.Â Their latest release, Metrics of Affection, continues that trend.
Metrics of Affection is an addictive spin on folksy-Americana, Piedmont blues, and rocking gypsy rag-time.Â It is built upon simple guitar lines, subtle hints of banjo, classically-themed piano melodies, andÂ drum patterns that emit power in their simplicity.Â Starting with the albumâ€™s opening track, â€œAngeline,â€ in which the band sounds like it is harmonizing with the ghost of Kate Bush, Bombadil crafts an album that sings of deep thoughts on life and love and relationships.Â Each song is wrapped up snugly with simple word-play that hides the true meaning and requires the listener to peel back each layer of the song to reveal the elusive soul of each tune.Â Or maybe as they sing, in what could be the albumâ€™s standout track, â€œEscalators,â€ â€œweâ€™re just out of toilet paper againâ€ and that is all they mean and there is no broader, profound truth to be found in the lyrics. Either way that is the beauty and genius of Bombadilâ€™s music, their ability to create such complex musical beauty out of such a simple sound.