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Derek Halsey: Summer means time for new music
May 02, 2011 @ 12:00 AM
There is not a lot of new music released during the winter months, especially after the first of the year. But as the warm weather appears in the spring, new albums pop up like mushrooms in a field as the music world prepares for the summertime concert season. Here are some of the best new releases coming out now on the rootsy side of the aisle.
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, "Rare Bird Alert" Rounder Records
Steve Martin is known worldwide as a movie star and comedian, yet he has also played the banjo for almost 50 years. This is his second banjo album, and it is the best for some very specific reasons. On Martin's first all-music album, "The Crow," he was surrounded by friends and special musical guests such as Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Tim O'Brien, Pete Wernick, Earl Scruggs, Tony Trischka and Molly Black and it was very good, winning the Grammy award for bluegrass music. However, when he embarked on an extensive concert tour to go with the project, it was the impressive Steep Canyon Rangers whom he brought in to back him up onstage. Martin met the Rangers a few years earlier through his wife's family in North Carolina.
Now, on "Rare Bird Alert," Martin brings even more original songs to the table only this time he is backed up by the Rangers on every cut with a few special guests thrown in the mix. In other words, this doesn't feel like a side project but instead is the end result of Martin recording with the band he has been living and playing with on the road for the last two years. There is no substitution for working together as a musical unit over an extended period of time, and that unity and drive is front and center on this record. The songs lean forward instrumentally, yet there is also some fun on the album to boot, as one would expect from Martin. Guesting on the CD are the Dixie Chicks and Paul McCartney. The latter sings the song "Best Love," which is a wonderful banjo tune with a happy Beatles feel to it. An impressive effort, and the real deal, from top to bottom.
Town Mountain, "Steady Operator" Pinecastle Records
Town Mountain is a bluegrass band from Asheville, N.C., who brings some open-minded traditional bluegrass music to the table with a focus on original songs. The group is made up of Phil Barker on mandolin and vocals, Bobby Britt on fiddle, Robert Greer on guitar and vocals, Jesse Langlais on banjo and vocals and Barrett Smith on bass, lead guitar and vocals. The new album is "Steady Operator" and is produced by the award-winning bluegrass bassist Mike Bub. There are many fun and down-to-Earth jams here including a new original instrumental penned by Langlais called "Fallin' Off The Wagon" and a Mountain State-relevant song written by Barker called "Diggin' On The Mountainside" with lyrics that include, "they're coming in from out of town, they cut the timber and stripping the ground, rich folks diggin' on a mountainside, come to build their castles high."
Brian Setzer, "Setzer Goes Instru-MENTAL" Surfdog Records
Brian Setzer has always been an electric guitar juggernaut, first ripping the six string with the rockabilly punk group The Straycats back in the day and in recent years fronting a big band that would kick up a swing/rockabilly groove as well as making some fun Christmastime fare. Here Setzer goes all instrumental with a trio format, putting his electric guitar to work on some jams including some smoking takes on a few bluegrass standards such as Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and Earl Scruggs' "Earl's Breakdown." Campy, fun and rocking!
Amy Speace, "Land Like A Bird" Thirty Tigers Records
"Land Like A Bird" is an appropriate title for Amy Speace's new album as it was recorded after some big changes happened in her life. A long-time performer in New York City and surrounding areas, Speace was noticed by singer Judy Collins a few years ago, who then signed her to the Wildflower Records label. Speace's past recordings, such as the impressive "Songs For Bright Street" album, fell somewhere in-between solo guitar folk music and full-blown rock fare. The songs on "Land Like A Bird" bridge the gap between the two styles and was recorded after a relationship gone bad and a big move south to live in Nashville.
Ten out of the 12 songs were written by Speace, including five that were co-written by Neilson Hubbard, who produced the album. Hubbard has been on a roll lately, producing new projects by Shannon Whitworth, Apache Relay, The Farewell Drifters and other new acoustic groups on the rise. Here he surrounds Speace's music with mellow yet wonderfully atmospheric electric guitar sounds that highlight her truly beautiful singing voice.
What keeps Speace's music from crossing the Folk Music Line of Self Indulgence is that she is a traveler and a keen observer of the world around her, which you can read first hand if you find her blog about living in New Orleans for a month at www.amyspeace.com. One standout cut is "Its Too Late To Call It A Night," a song about meeting someone new and the sparks beginning to fly, when a chance meeting produces a love buzz that unexpectedly overtakes you from behind as opposed to when you're looking for it, when you lose all sense of time as the late night conversation turns into early morning. "Look at us," sings Speace. "Like we knew how good this could be." I predict that some country star will take this song and run with it eventually. Here you can hear it as it is supposed to sound.
Sarah Jarosz, "Follow Me Down" Sugar Hill Records
Sarah Jarosz is simply one of the most important young artists on the music scene today. Now 20 years old, she has always been capable of music that sounds beyond her years. Yet, Jarosz knows what century she lives in, an artist fully aware of her time and generation. She grew up in Texas and began to play bluegrass and old time music at an early age, yet her musical influences are wide and diverse ranging from Tim O'Brien to Radiohead to Gnarls Barkley. "Follow Me Down" is her second album and there is no sophomore jinx here. Jarosz takes the beauty and the power of her first album, "Song Up In My Head," and moves forward without losing any ground.
Backing Jarosz on the album is a group of great musicians that were not brought in to be well-known window dressing, but are there to willingly help to bring her musical vision to life. Those musicians include The Punch Brothers, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Shawn Colvin, Vince Gill, Sarah Siskind, Darrell Scott, Viktor Krauss, Seamus Eagan, Nathaniel Smith, Jenny Conlee-Drizos, John Leventhal, Mark Shatz, Edgar Meyer, Kenny Malone, Casey Driessen, Shannon Forest, Alex Hargreaves, Dan Tyminski and Bela' Fleck.
"Follow Me Down" is a combination of instrumental prowess, Jarosz plays clawhammer banjo, acoustic, tenor and electric guitar, mandolin and octave mandolin on the album, and ethereal yet rootsy original songwriting. All of this combined with her unique singing voice creates a set of music that is far above what you will hear almost anywhere else in the music world today.
Derek Halsey is an award-winning freelance music writer for The Herald-Dispatch.
From another thread, Follow Me Down first listen link:
[Edited on 6/10/2011 by Brock]
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