Category: bluegrass

Festival Preview: FreshGrass @ MassMoCA, Sept. 21-23
(14 covers of John Martyn, The Pixies, The Police, tradfolk & more!)

September 8th, 2012 — 02:03 pm

It’s hard not to love the idea of a bluegrass festival with its own IPA, brewed and provided by Greenfield, MA locavore haven The People’s Pint. Nor is it possible to ignore the appeal of hanging out among the grand exhibits and well-curated artspaces of MASS MoCA, one of my favorite museums, which has long held my deep respect for its role in revitalizing the mid-Massachusetts contemporary arts scene, and has recently become well known among the hipster set for hosting envelope-pushing performing arts of all types, including newly-localized band Wilco, lush lo-fi hipster heroes Handsome Family, British indie-folkster Laura Marling (coming on October 26th), and others on the cutting edge of modern folk and roots music.

But the second annual FreshGrass Festival has more to offer than great beer and a quirky arts-oriented 19th century factory campus setting. Some of our favorite newgrass bands pepper the roster, with young high-energy faces and rising stars sharing the stages with some of the very founders of the genre, from Alison Brown, David Grisman and Tony Rice to Joy Kills Sorrow, Trampled By Turtles, Spirit Family Reunion, the Carolina Chocolate Drops with Haitian-American cellist Leyla McCalla, the Infamous Stringdusters, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West, the Berklee Roots Roadshow, and more. Expect a perfect mix of new and old-time music, with strings and hollers galore, and a zest for life that typifies the broad genre-span that is post-millennial bluegrass.

Multiple stages, workshops and films, pop-up performances inside and out, and innovative exhibits and food vendors selling everything from the usual hearty organic festival fare to moonshine slushies combine to deliver an experience aptly described by its organizers as a “bluegrass amusement park”, where authenticity and exploration are the name of the game. So join me on the third weekend in September in North Adams, MA, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Berkshires and the Hudson Valley. And save some time for an indoor/outdoor meander as well: festival and day passes include gallery access, allowing for a few hours out of the weather with a beautiful, grass-driven soundtrack – a stunning, envelope-pushing, multi-sensory experience not to be missed.

Here’s some coverage to whet your whistle, with previously-posted treats nestled snug among the newest performances from Bill Evans, Trampled By Turtles, Spirit Family Reunion, and more. From takes on Arcade Fire, The Police, Elvis Costello, John Martyn, The Pixies, and Dylan to old bluegrass and country standards done up with neo-traditional flair, the playlist – like the festival itself – is sure to offer something for everyone.

  • Trampled By Turtles: Rebellion (Lies) (orig. Arcade Fire) [via]

Yup, we’re back! Stay tuned for more features later this month, including a dip into the bulging mailbag for some great live folk recordings and more…a post which, barring technical disaster, will featuring exclusive footage from our upcoming house concert with Brooklyn duo Molly Venter of Red Molly and Eben Pariser of Roosevelt Dime. And don’t forget to check out the Cover Lay Down Facebook page for bonus streams and videos throughout the week!

2 comments » | bluegrass, Festival Coverfolk

Covergrass, Redux:
The Joe Val Bluegrass Fest, Feb 17-19, 2012

February 16th, 2012 — 08:03 pm

Once again, we’re off to spend the weekend at the always amazing Joe Val Bluegrass Festival out at the Sheraton in Framingham, MA. This year’s lineup is stellar as always, with young sensation Sierra Hull, Steve Martin touring and recording companions the Steep Canyon Rangers, new Boston-based all-girl quintet Della Mae, long-time fave the Clare Lynch Band, and special guest spots from banjo master Bill Keith and folk singer-songwriter Jonathan Edwards holding down a powerhouse three days of music.

We’ve covered most of these artists before, so instead of fishing for some new angle, in honor of our sixth consecutive year at the fest, I’m reviving our 2008 post on the topic, along with a much expanded set of covergrass to whet your whistle for the days ahead. Read on for some favorite covers from Joe Val mainstage performers past and present – and then pack up your mando, banjo, fiddle, dobro, guitar or bass and head on over to Joe Val!

In my heart, Bluegrass is the epitome of summer, calling up images of bare feet, hot sun, cold beer straight from the cooler, and warm outdoor nights pickin’ tentside in the camps. And in most audiences, the genre is grounded in the geography of the American South, where summer lingers long and lazy – both in the appalachian ranges which hold its old-timey roots, and in the country music of Grand Old Opryland which so supported its evolution.

But there’s plenty of good reasons why the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival – an annual mid-winter event which celebrates the surprisingly strong New England bluegrass community, previously featured here in 2008 – has won fan accolades and “best fest” awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association. Crammed into a turreted Sheraton Tara, its conference room workshops, lobby picking circles, and grand ballroom mainstage sets defy all expectations – and the Boston Bluegrass Union, who sponsor the event, deserve kudos for packing in enough time, energy and diversity to make for a grand and intimate experience.

Though it’s a strong festival in its own right, I tend to approach Joe Val as a preview tour for discovery, a guide for what not to miss come July as I make my annual pilgrimage to Grey Fox. And it works: without fail, each time I have attended, I have come away excited about a few new discoveries, and this year’s festival, which ended yesterday, was no exception.

In six years of regular attendance, Joe Val has introduced me to The Infamous Stringdusters, The Steeldrivers, Sierra Hull, The Steep Canyon Rangers, and a plethora of other stringbands, gospel quartets, and high tenor crooners both new and old. And unsurprisingly, many of these discoveries are driven by coverage – after all, the Bluegrass canon is chock full of old standards, and the genre itself is intimately tied to the performances and songcraft of a finite handful of individuals, from The Carter Family to Flatt and Scruggs, from The Stanley Brothers to founding father Bill Monroe himself.

An interlude: by most popular definitions, bluegrass isn’t folk music. Where modern singer-songwriter folk teeters on the edge of pop, rock, and blues, with the major exception of crossover artists Crooked Still and Allison Krauss and Union Station, today’s bluegrass bands find radioplay on the country end of the dial, if at all. And though there are certainly plenty of crossover alt-country and Americana musicians out there who are welcome at both bluegrass and folk festivals, most music festivals tend to be firmly either/or.

But as I’ve noted previously, folk and bluegrass have much in common. Both stem from the same early American folk tree; both depend heavily on the acoustic guitar; both use traditional forms of rhyme, verse structure, trope and storytelling in their lyrics and song structure. Wikipedia lists bluegrass as a form of country music, it’s true, but it also refers to it as a form of American roots music, or Americana – the category which encompasses the “folk” forms of American music.

Which is to say: we’re bluegrass fans here at Cover Lay Down. And though owning up to this has probably already lost me some hardcore folkies over the months since we started, I make no apologies for the bluegrass among the folk. The acoustic nature of the two forms, and their shared roots in African-American blues, British folk ballads, and appalachian music, makes for a clear commonality, even if the sounds are clearly different.

One significant distinction between bluegrass and modern folk music is the vastly different ways in which the two forms approach harmony. Where folk music performance tends to prioritize the singer-songwriter, both as vocalist and instrumentalist, the best bluegrass is about balance – between instruments, and among voices. The bluegrass sound is thus typified by close harmonies that span the range from high male tenor to bass, and a wide range of acoustic stringed instruments – typically bass, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle – which echo that vocal range, and, through alternating-beat use of bass and percussive high-stringed chords, provide an equally rich, full sound.

Bluegrass gets a bad rap in the world of covers — all those anonymous session musicians cutting albums of Phish and Nine Inch Nails and Led Zeppelin covers just to pay the rent doesn’t help. But bluegrass music is much more than country music’s poor country cousin. The covers you’ll find featured in today’s post are the real deal, performed with love and respect. Even if you’re not usually the bluegrass type, I highly recommend giving them a try.

To those unschooled in the history of bluegrass music, the Framingham, MA, Sheraton might seem an especially odd choice for the International Bluegrass Music Association‘s 2006 Event of the Year. But the popular stereotype which casts bluegrass music as a form of southern music belies a rich and long-standing tradition of New England bluegrass. And remembering that Scots-Irish dance tunes and English ballads are but one of several primary influences on the bluegrass form does help one come to terms with the fact that the Sheraton is built like a giant Irish castle, and thus looks more like a venue for a jousting tournament than a site for a bluegrass festival.

Once you get over the strange dissonance between the snow-capped castle turrets outside and the sound of a thousand banjos, basses, high tenors and mandolins inside, The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival is a great gig. Incredibly, festival sponsor the Boston Bluegrass Association manages to successfully reproduce the feel of a great outdoor festival indoors in the dead of winter. The atmosphere is infectiously fun, from the ubiquitous hallway jam sessions to the ballroom mainstage to the conference rooms stuffed with product demos and instrumental workshops.

And the musical talent is out of this world. The Joe Val Festival, which celebrates the life of seminal 1960′s New England bluegrass mandolin player Joe Val, attracts a significant share of IBMA award winners, both old and new. As such, it’s a good way to whet one’s appetite for the cornucopia of summer festivals which pepper New England in the warmer months. And it’s a great vehicle for us to consider the place of bluegrass in the spectrum of American folk forms.

Today, we feature a select set of covers from the artists I’ve been lucky enough to see at Joe Val in the past six years. Together, they explore the surprisingly vast potential of the bluegrass sound, running the gamut from country singer-songwriter to gospel, from old-school to new school. It was a genuine pleasure to see them all, and it’s a genuine pleasure to share their work with you.

As always, all album and artist links lead directly to band and artist websites, where albums can be purchased, tours can be charted, and fan appetites can be whetted. And if you live in New England, you might also be interested in knowing that the Boston Bluegrass Union, which sponsors the Joe Val Festival, puts on great shows throughout the year.

1 comment » | bluegrass, Festival Coverfolk

Bluegrass and Beyond: Notes from Joe Val Fest, 2011
featuring Michael Daves, Frank Solivan, The Bee Eaters, Della Mae & more!

February 20th, 2011 — 11:18 pm

In my heart, Bluegrass is the epitome of summer, calling up images of bare feet, hot sun, cold beer straight from the cooler, and warm outdoor nights pickin’ tentside in the camps. And in most audiences, the genre is grounded in the geography of the American South, where summer lingers long and lazy – both in the appalachian ranges which hold its old-timey roots, and in the country music of Grand Old Opryland which so supported its evolution.

But there’s plenty of good reasons why the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival – an annual mid-winter event which celebrates the surprisingly strong New England bluegrass community, previously featured here in 2008 – has won fan accolades and “best fest” awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association. Crammed into a turreted Sheraton Tara, its conference room workshops, lobby picking circles, and grand ballroom mainstage sets defy all expectations – and the Boston Bluegrass Union, who sponsor the event, deserve kudos for packing in enough time, energy and diversity to make for a grand and intimate experience.

Though it’s a strong festival in its own right, I tend to approach Joe Val as a preview tour for discovery, a guide for what not to miss come July as I make my annual pilgrimage to Grey Fox. And it works: without fail, each time I have attended, I have come away excited about a few new discoveries, and this year’s festival, which ended yesterday, was no exception.

In five years of regular attendance, Joe Val has introduced me to The Infamous Stringdusters, The Steeldrivers, Sierra Hull, The Steep Canyon Rangers, and a plethora of other stringbands, gospel quartets, and high tenor crooners both new and old. Many of these discoveries are driven by coverage – after all, the Bluegrass canon is chock full of old standards, and the genre itself is intimately tied to the performances and songcraft of a finite handful of individuals, from The Carter Family to Flatt and Scruggs, from The Stanley Brothers to founding father Bill Monroe himself.

Given that recent and personality-driven history, I was surprised not to hear any Louvin Brothers covers at this year’s festival, though we did hear three different bands take on Kentucky Waltz on Saturday alone, in fitting tribute to Bill Monroe’s 100th birthday this year. But though, as you’ll see below, I did find a number of new favorites on the mainstage this year, I was even more surprised to find that this year’s most exciting discoveries sprung from the set of one of the most well-known of all bluegrass banjo players.

I’ve seen Bluegrass-and-beyond banjo wizard Tony Trischka solo a few times, including a revelatory introduction 8 years ago at the now-defunct Winterhawk 2000 festival, and in partnership with fellow five-string star Bela Fleck at a memorable Grey Fox workshop a few years later. Trischka’s performance is always fluid and masterful, but it’s never showy, and for this year’s Friday night closing set he played it especially cool, allowing a hand-selected trio of young performers to share his limelight.

Trishka was amazing, as always: fast and magical, both solo and in tandem with another banjo player. But I’m grateful that he gave front billing to Territory, the band he had recruited and organized. Because fiddler Tashina Clarridge was stunning, fluid and graceful, keeping up with the legend’s licks like lightning. And vocalist and guitarist Michael Daves, who I had never even heard of before this weekend, so impressed me that I spent an hour the next morning in his well-attended guitar-and-voice workshop.

Thankfully, both artists perform in other formations, so there’s ample opportunity to celebrate and listen to them outside of the unexpected sideman’s slot. For example: along with her brother Tristan, who plays cello for Crooked Still, Tashina performs and runs string workshops regularly with The Bee Eaters, a group who travel in the same classical-meets-old-timey vein as Crooked Still, The Folk Arts Quartet, and other Boston bands we’ve featured here in the past, and I think you’ll find their Beatles cover below an apt introduction to their chamber folk style and flair.

Meanwhile, Brooklynite Michael Daves, who in performance and morning lesson showed himself to be a mature, thoughtful, extraordinarily deliberate master in hipster glasses and Chuck Taylors, has the mind-blowing power and presence of a bluegrass and neo-old-time superstar. His utterly stunning vocals and deliberate guitar work are only available in live recordings – on his website, and on Live At The Rockwood, a 2007 album which represents his only purchaseable work to date, but even they reveal a star on the rise, with Del McCoury’s raw, high-strung tenor vocals in his throat and no less than Bill Monroe’s deliberate, note-by-note method running through his hand on the strings.

NYC-based readers can catch Michael Daves at the Rockwood every Tuesday night; the rest of us will have to wait until his duo album with indiegrass darling Chris Thile of Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek drops this Spring. After this weekend’s performance, I’m ready to call it album of the year without even hearing it first.

Of course, other voices should have their due here, too. Among this year’s other big discoveries was Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, a modern bluegrass quartet who seem to be making waves in their native Washington, DC. Powerful multi-instrumentalist bandleader Solivan, who whet his chops as a mandolin player and fiddler in both classical and bluegrass venues in California and Alaska before joining Country Current, the United States Navy’s elite country and bluegrass band, early in the 21st century, released two solo albums and mentored and toured with some big names indeed before organizing three other award-winning musicians into the tight-knit group that goes by Dirty Kitchen; together, they craft and arrange some mighty fine original compositions, and Frank delivers them in a powerful, clear voice just right for easy bluegrass listening – fine enough, in fact, to have come to Joe Val straight from the weekend’s National Folk Alliance conference down in Memphis.

My festival companion’s favorite this year was Hot Mustard, a two-banjo, two-couple quartet who moved up from a showcase set last year to an early Friday evening mainstage debut this year, and who will be touring with Tony Trischka this year. As my father said, their set alone was worth the price of festival admission, due in no small part to the virtuosity of Bruce Stockwell and Bill Jubett, banjo players brought together initially by a NH Arts Grant apprenticeship, and to the sweet, gutsy vocals of lead singer and guitarist April Hobart.

Though they played several in concert, Hot Mustard don’t seem to have any covers recorded, or indeed any albums for sale at all, so I’ve included two of Hobart’s folky home recordings below – a familiar Carolina Chocolate Drops revival and a sweet, quiet kidfolk cover – you’ll hear what brought us is; just imagine it with strong stand-up bass and double banjos for full effect. But Frank Solivan’s quartet has an equally strong knack for reinterpretation, when they put their shoulders to it – and you can hear it in these two vastly different endcaps from their newest album, as well as in an early track from Solivan’s 2002 solo release.

Of course, there’s never time to see everything. Attending Michael Daves’ workshop taught me to appreciate bluegrass in a whole new way, but it also caused me to have to skip the morning’s set by Chasing Blue, an old-timey-style five-piece, born out of Berklee School of Music, who seem eager to make a first impression on the larger New England audience after a solid live performance at the IBMA Awards a couple of years ago. I bought their self-titled EP fresh off the presses afterwards, and am enjoying their youthful energy immensely, not to mention their solid original compositions; their Jimmy Martin cover, which seems to be a track from a previous, now out-of-print debut EP, speaks well of their performance and their potential for more.

More significantly, I had to skip Sunday at Joe Val this year, which meant missing the morning’s gospel performances, and that’s a shame – imagine a two-hour block of gospel harmonies, and you know your ears are in for a mighty fine morning. It also meant missing Della Mae, a relatively new New England-based all-girl bluegrass quintet that came with no small amount of buzz. I’m quite disappointed to have missed what promised to be quite high-octane performances from this year’s two big young barnburner bands, so I’m making it up to them by sharing the covers below, in the hopes that it’ll help keep them at the top of all of our minds as we look towards summer.

In other Bluegrass news, as a coda of sorts: the Gibson Brothers, who so impressed me with their Greg Brown cover this summer in a workshop stage set at Grey Fox, release their newest album Help My Brother on Compass Records this Tuesday, and – thanks to some fine sibling harmonies, smooth-ride instrumental interplay, heartfelt lyricism, and guest spots from the likes of Claire Lynch and Ricky Skaggs – it once again demonstrates why the band of five remain strong headliners on the festival circuit. They weren’t at Joe Val, but we discovered them there, and they’re on my mind and my CD player today, along with all the other artists above.

794 comments » | bluegrass, Michael Daves

Monday Madness: The Hillbenders cover 80′s hit Talking In Your Sleep

January 17th, 2011 — 01:30 pm

Up-and-coming bluegrass whiz-kids The Hillbenders have just been added to the lineup for this year’s Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, and I couldn’t be happier with their barn-burning treatment of The Romantics chart-topper Talkin’ In Your Sleep – notably, the first 45 I ever bought, way back in 1983. Play it loud while you dream of summer.

1,044 comments » | bluegrass, The Hillbenders, YouTube

Festival Coverfolk 2010: Grey Fox Bluegrass, July 15-18

June 29th, 2010 — 03:50 pm

This is my third year in a row touting the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival on these pages, and frankly, it’s getting more and more difficult to truly add value to our ongoing promotion. Which is not to say the festival has been stagnating – far from it, in fact. It’s just that after a decade of attendance, and three years of blogging about it, I’m running short on fresh superlatives worthy of the best grassfest around.

The reigning champion of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s “Festival of the Year” category after 35 years of continued excellence, the four day, five stage event has been consistent throughout in presenting a veritable who’s who of modern bluegrass in all its joyful diversity, and this year’s lineup is just stunning, with top-value names from all branches of the bluegrass canon, including many personal and fan favorites both young and old, returning to play Walsh Farm in tiny yet accessible Oak Hills, NY – just 45 min. from Albany, and three hours or less from both Boston and NYC.

We’ve covered many of these folks here before, so I hope no one minds today’s self-referential, repost-heavy approach to this year’s pre-fest celebration of all things Grey Fox. For a full schedule, including showtimes for Josh Williams, Donna The Buffalo, Sam Bush, The Gibson Brothers, and many more great acts less relevant to our folk focus yet no less adept or enjoyable as players and performers, head over to the newly-designed Grey Fox Festival website, where you can order your tix for the best fest around. Earlybird ticket sales end tomorrow, so don’t delay planning your summer roadtrip – once you take a listen to these fine samples from the Grey Fox 2010 lineup, of course.

    Crooked Still is one of our most-covered artists here on Cover Lay Down, and for good reason; in many ways, the Boston-based quartet-turned-quintet – equally at home at Celtic, folk, and Bluegrass festivals – defined a new sonic space in the post-millennial atmosphere, leading the way for a rising generation of hybridfolk that continues to explode into our ears and hearts. Their new cover of You Got The Silver, part of our Rolling Stones coverset last month, is excellent, too, as is their take on tradsong The Golden Vanity, blogged when new album Some Strange Country emerged.

    I first encountered international trio The Greencards at Grey Fox, one of the best moments of a very good year indeed; since then, I’ve caught ‘em twice, blogged ‘em alongside Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins, and developed an eternal hankering for their lead singer’s sweet powerhouse voice floating over those perfect popgrass arrangements.

    Kathy Mattea isn’t the first artist to make the leap from Falcon Ridge to Grey Fox in successive years; Crooked Still did the same thing a few years ago. But although we first featured Mattea as part of last year’s Falcon Ridge preview, the country chart-topper will be more solidly in her element at Grey Fox, and the setting is bound to make her songs of heartache and hope shine. Her appearance with Tim O’Brien on the Masters stage will see the occasional collaborators take on the songs of West Virginia, a delight for any coverfan – be sure to keep an eye out for me under the tent.

    The diversity of mandolin virtuoso and label-owner Dave Grisman’s output, especially in collaboration with the likes of Doc Watson, Jerry Garcia, John Hartford, and others over a long and illustrious career, has meant several mentions on these pages since our inception. But bluegrass is truly in his heart, and his music in ours.

    New York / New England local heroes The Sweetback Sisters, who we mentioned in December’s year-end post, teeter on the line between a raucous old-time honky-tonk folk, sensitive country swing, and other new hybridgrass forms; like Crooked Still, their alliance with folklabel Signature Sounds seems perfectly natural, especially when their two female vocalists take the lead on some sweet ballad. But that’s also Sam Amidon’s brother on drums in this funky Roger Miller remake – need I say more?

    We’ve been following singer-songwriter and mandolin goddess Sarah Jarosz since she first emerged as a player in the popgrass scene, most recently unveiling an exclusive look at her collaboration with Black Prairie on the recent Shel Silverstein tribute album. But her tendency towards cowboy boots belies her rightful setting. And I still want her version of Come On Up To The House played at my funeral.

    Even though the even-younger up-and-comer Sierra Hull‘s name doesn’t appear on the Grey Fox lineup as a solo act, she’ll be there as part of the Berklee Roots Music Show, showing the world what the newest players-in-training are doing in Boston via the brand new Roots Music Program at Berklee College. Sierra’s true-blue countrygrass take on an old Connie Francis tune whets our whistle for the next generation.

    Finally, veteran bluegrass performer and jam-band crossover fave Del McCoury will be on site again, still wiry and wild after a half century on the road with and without his sons and compatriots; two years ago, in our Grey Fox 2008 preview, I claimed that his version of Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning was better than the original, and though I’m going to assume you’ve got it by now, I stand by that assessment. Last year, Grisman and son showed up during Del’s set to back up the band. Who will sit in in 2010?

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk sets and features every Wednesday, Sunday, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: new coverfolk from the mailbag, a tribute to Dave Carter, a look ahead at a California vacation, and the subjective best of this year’s crop of YouTube coverage!

1,598 comments » | bluegrass, Festival Coverfolk

Bluegrass On The Edge:
New releases from The Farewell Drifters, Keller Williams, and Crooked Still

May 16th, 2010 — 07:40 pm

The breeze outside is gentle, and the temperature hovers in the low seventies. Our garden is overgrown with tall grasses, I can hear the kids calling breathlessly to each other from the woods behind the house, and the best damn ‘grass festival in the Northeast is just two months away. Perfect for an afternoon on the porch with the laptop, a glass of lemonade, and a stack of new and upcoming releases from the broad borders of bluegrass.

Nashville-based up-and-comers The Farewell Drifters are my favorite kind of bluegrass band: talented, young and energetic, with chops and poise beyond their years. Which makes me especially happy to report that their sophomore album Yellow Tag Mondays is a well-balanced delight, revealing a hidden pop side and an ear for perfect tenor-led harmonies, making it clear that this quintet of fresh-faced, clear-voiced singer-songwriters and instrumentalists are more than ready for the main stage.

Like many young five- and six-piece bluegrass bands, The Farewell Drifters push their own strong songwriting heavily; in two albums and one EP, their total coverage count remains small enough to count on one hand, with room left over for hitchhiking. That’s not a bad thing – primary songwriters and band co-founders Josh Britt and Zach Bevill have a knack for hook-heavy composition and solid, sweet countrypop lyrics that, when added to the band’s rich sound, engender apt comparison to Nickel Creek. Still when the boys do go outside their own book, it’s a genuine joy, and thanks to their reps, I’m proud to present an exclusive covertrack from the new album, plus a bonus cover from their 2008 River Song EP, and one more from their debut which reveals just how far the road has taken the band in three short years.

It’s been a long, long while since we visited the Beatles songbook, but it’s good to hear a young band prove there’s still life in those old familiar tunes. Listen, then head over to their website to check out The Farewell Drifters’ back catalog, and to save your place in line for the June 8 release of Yellow Tag Mondays.

Keller Williams is hard to categorize – though the irreverent and self-indulgent singer-songwriter spent much of his career on the jamband circuit, he most often performs in full solo folksinger mode; his albums tend to stick to a particular sensibility throughout, but taken as a collection, they run the gamut from electrojam to acoustic folk. But with the sweet flatpicking, acoustic bass, and occasional harmonies of husband and wife duo Larry and Jenny Keel layered under his signature choppy guitar style on every track, just like in previous 2006 Keller and the Keels collaboration Grass, his new all-covers album Thief comes closest to bluegrass than anything.

Though both Keller and his detractors often have trouble taking his performance seriously – check out the utter silliness of his Moondance cover from 2003 live release Stage below to see what I mean – the approach here is comprehensively successful, transforming a vast array of songs from the hidden recesses of alt-radio and popular culture into delightful summery tunes, playful and light. I’ve included a few favorites, but the whole album is worth pursuit, if only to hear tracks such as signature Amy Winehouse hit Rehab, Ryan Adams’ Cold Roses, and the Butthole Surfer’s Pepper totally revamped as lazy jazzgrass jams a la perennial cover favorites Hayseed Dixie.

Of course, the biggest news in the increasingly rich world of crossover folk/bluegrass these days is the newest from Crooked Still. All eyes are on Some Strange Country, due to drop on Tuesday, and available for full-album streaming at NPR until then. I’m a huge fan of Crooked Still, and there’s a lot to love here: their album-closing cover of the Rolling Stones’ You Got The Silver is fun, sure to please both cover lovers and newcomers alike; first single Half of What We Know is a strong radio-ready composition that works well with the band’s fluid, dark atmosphere, and it’s wonderful to hear a full record’s worth of new covers and originals from Crooked Still – a band with a well-known reputation as perfectionists who hew close to their catalog in concert, and take few risks on stage and between albums, as evidenced by Crooked Still Live, last summer’s under-the-radar live album.

But though I highly recommend purchase to old fans and new, I’m also finding a grain of salt in my celebration of Some Strange Country. The press release, as might be expected, touts the record as a sonic expansion, and it’s fair to say that lead singer Aoife O’Donovan lets go a bit more than on previous releases, but other than that, I’m hard-pressed to describe it as anything but a continuation and perhaps a crystalization of the same wonderful sound we’ve been privy to before.

Am I asking too much? Are familiarity and comfort an inherent drawback to defining your own sound outside of traditional genre lines? Check out both the above-linked original track and this totally revamped take on my youngest daughter’s favorite traditional folksong, move on quick to NPR before the stream turns into a pumpkin at midnight tomorrow, and make the call for yourself.

Speaking of NPR: I managed to catch the tail end of a Mountain Stage rerun last week which featured barely post-adolescent sibling trio The Lovell Sisters originally recorded in June of last year, and the set was such a stunner, a blow-your-socks-off fusion of folk, bluegrass, country and old-timey acoustic, I can’t help but pass it along.

The Lovells Sisters broke up in January – seems college takes short-term priority over performance for sister Jessica – and there’s nothing but wonderfully vibrant originals on the first EP from the remaining duo, now performing as Larkin Poe. But the EP is well worth note and promotion, so click here for the NPR archive of The Lovell Sisters on Mountain Stage, covering Jimi Hendrix, Massive Attack’s Teardrop (aka the theme to House, MD), and In My Time of Dyin’.

Oh, and as a total afterthought: legendary Black Sabbath vocalist Ronnie James Dio passed away today after a long battle with cancer. War Pigs predates his work with the seminal heavy metal band, but here’s a Hayseed Dixie cover in tribute anyway:

1,430 comments » | bluegrass, Crooked Still, Keller Williams, The Farewell Drifters

Tim O’Brien Covers:
Randy Newman, John Hartford, Jimmie Rodgers, Dylan, Hendrix & more!
…plus bonus covers of the Tim O’Brien songbook!

February 10th, 2010 — 04:16 pm

I’ve been thinking bluegrass all week, thanks to a pair of tickets to this weekend’s Joe Val Festival – an annual mid-winter marathon excursion which we’ve written about profusely in past years. It’s a form that often doesn’t get included in the folk blogger pantheon, save for the tradfolk and oldtimey set, and a tiny handful of Bluegrass specialists, but here at Cover Lay Down we like to define our terms broadly.

In an older sense, of course, our inclusion of the ‘grass is easy to defend: bluegrass is most definitely a folkform, though of a vastly different branch than the revivalist folk which generally defines the term in the popular mind. And though it is one of the newer folk genres – hewn out of old timey and appalachian countryfolk by a young Bill Monroe, and spread outward from there to infiltrate the corners of a culture – modern bluegrass is a broad umbrella, filling in the odd-shaped nooks and crannies between folk, country, and other peripheral forms, its sound ranging from countrified all-out newgrass to a gentle and sweet-sounding music bordering on popfolk.

Still, its origin in the band-driven sound generally frames bluegrass performance as a group thing; Joe Val, for example, will feature plenty of bluegrass groupings, but nary a soloist on the mainstage. Rarer is the bluegrass soloist, though there’s certainly room for the singer-songwriter in the ‘grass. And no one has worked harder to bring solo folk performance back to the bluegrass audience than Tim O’Brien. Today, we feature just a small slice of the vast spectrum of covers from this contemporary bluegrass legend – followed by a short set of bonus tracks from other, newer artists covering his own songbook. Ladies and gentlemen: Tim O’Brien.

Tim O’Brien has been around the barn and back again, as far as the Bluegrass world goes. Famous as a founding member of the seminal 70s and 80s contemporary bluegrass quartet Hot Rize and their Western swing alter ego Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, whose members moved on in the early nineties after a five album run, Tim moved on easily to a strong career as both a highly respected producer and collaborator, and a solo artist trying to capture the full range of folk music, from singer-songwriter work to the exploratory, oft-countrified sound of pop bluegrass.

As a solo artist, O’Brien cites James Taylor and Joni Mitchell as antecedents; though he is generally found in a different section of the CD racks, there’s something to this comparison. O’Brien’s voice is sometimes strained, but it has its own unique beauty, and his adept delivery carries easily from poignant and lonely to playful and proud. His masterful guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin work is stunning in its direct simplicity; as both interpreter and composer, his lyrical tenderness and melodic prowess have an inimitable, easily recognizable style.

Prolific and dedicated to stretching the boundaries of his own craft after 30 years in the business, the Tim O’Brien canon includes over 25 albums in a variety of incarnations as soloist and group member, and each is worth celebrating. O’Brien won a well-deserved Grammy in the Traditional Folk category for his spare, intimate 2005 album Fiddler’s Green; his simultaneous release, 2005 album Cornbread Nation, is a personal favorite, one that moves fluidly through a batch of predominantly trad-song source material, teasing the worldbeat, the folk, the blues, the gospel, and a host of other influences out of oft-shadowed lines where genre blurs, marking his rightful place in the folk pantheon as a name-brand. Cover lovers will also be thrilled with Red On Blonde, Tim’s 1996 tribute to the man whose recordings first prompted him to pick up a guitar at age 12.

I’ve been lucky enough to catch Tim live in several guises: as a sidestage solo act, in duet-mode with his sweet-voiced sister Mollie, and even in full-blown progressive newgrass mode with a revivalist version of Hot Rize, who will next appear together for the unwashed crowds at this summer’s Bonnaroo. Each was a delight. And though even his canon of coverage is far too vast for us to include it all, I’m proud to share a fair sample of his work with folk fans who may have overlooked him. Listen, and then visit Tim O’Brien’s store for much, much more.

Of course, any musician as talented, influential and ubiquitous as Tim O’Brien has inevitably had his share of tribute from other artists, too. Earlier coverage came from the likes of Kathy Mattea, The Seldom Scene, New Grass Revival, and more; today’s bonus tracks include a half-dozen more recent favorites from the next generation of artists performing on and about the lines between bluegrass, folk, country and pop.

*previously posted as part of this Grey Fox Bluegrass Fest feature.
**previously posted along with 8 other covers of Gillian Welch’s Orphan Girl.
***previously posted as part of a full set of Coversongs about Sleep.
****previously posted as part of a full post of Oceanfolk Covers.
*****previously posted in a set of Passover Coverfolk.

1,129 comments » | bluegrass, Tim O'Brien

Newgrass Voices: Sarah Jarosz covers The Decemberists; Sara Watkins goes solo; new coverage from The Greencards

April 28th, 2009 — 10:28 pm

The inbox is filling up fast with Spring releases, but the unseasonable heat’s got me thinking ahead to festival season. How to reconcile these seemingly disparate urges? Why, by featuring new works from a trifecta of femme-voiced artists I’ve seen at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival! Enjoy the tunes, and the change in the weather…

The new Sara Watkins is all over the blogs, and it’s a killer, albeit with caveats. But this newgrass-lovin’ folkie’s eyes and ears are first and foremost on nineteen year old emerging star Sarah Jarosz, a Texas-based picker, vocalist, and songwriter who came off fresh-cheeked and cowboy-booted this past summer at Northeast bluegrass mecca Grey Fox. Sarah-with-an-h has inherited the innocence that Sara-without has shed since her time with Nickel Creek, and this sweet cover of the Decemberists’ Shankill Butchers proves it, turning what was a gypsy ballad of local retro-hoodlums into something pensive and mystical and darkly gorgeous while retaining just the right measure of melodic naivete.

The rest of Song Up In Her Head is much of the same: full and complicated, primordial and neo-traditional and original all at once. It’s Little Red Riding Hood looking with wonder into the forest, with just a touch of the introspective adolescent watching her peers develop their dark side, and wondering how much of herself is in them. It’s full, and rich, and exquisitely produced by Tim O’Brien, who knows how to pick ‘em, bring out their full sound, and set ‘em up for glory.

The up-and-coming Jarosz is already poised, if still a bit bashful and dewey around the edges; her voice is pure, and her playing keen and masterful; it’s no wonder she draws a crowd of peers and horizon-watchers wherever she goes. Song Up In Her Head, which will have the full support of label Sugar Hill, doesn’t drop until June 16, but I’ve got label permission to share, and the song is well worth celebrating now; listen to a few more new tracks on Sarah’s MySpace page while you watch the buzz grow, note that her friend’s list there is a veritable who’s who of today’s young bluegrass superstars, and prepare to see Sarah Jarosz blow the socks off the neo-grass world as she continues to develop confidence.

PS: there are some partial YouTube covers of Sarah Jarosz covering Gnarls Barkley classic Crazy at Grey Fox out there, but I’ve been unable to find a full recording. Anyone got one?

Speaking of Sara Watkins: did I mention her new album has a handful of well-chosen covers hiding among the original tracks? Reception has been deservedly mixed — as others have noted, her attempts at covering Jon Brion’s Same Mistakes and Tom Waits’ Pony are maudlin and a bit unfocused — but her sweetly swinging countrified take on Jimmie Rogers standard Any Old Time, and a gentle indiefolk take on Norman Blake’s decades-old Lord Won’t You Help Me, are worth the price of admission for coverfans.

It seems like every blogger but me got a copy of Sara’s solo debut from Nonesuch, but I was lucky enough to inherit someone else’s free ticket for tonight’s show at the Iron Horse in Northampton; though Sara’s airy voice was overshadowed by her stellar uke and fiddlework until the last few songs of the set, after being blown away by a holy host of great covers from the fourth row (including all four of the above-mentioned songs, a surprisingly fun ukulele cover of Different Drum, a solid take on gospel classic River of Jordan, and a double-cover encore of John Hartford fave In Tall Buildings and Dylan standard Forever Young) I’m happy to trade in my pride for secondhand songs.

The live John Hartford cover below, taped earlier this week on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in performance with brother Sean, producer and ex-Led Zep bassist John Paul Jones and ?uestlove of Fallon’s house band The Roots, comes via Culture Bully; Fiddlefreak first streamed Lord, Won’t You Help Me. If you’re interested in label-sanctioned originals, Slowcoustic has All This Time, while Sean has Where Will You Be; listen, then pick up Sara Watkins’ self-titled solo debut here.

Last but not least, Fascination, the newest release from genre- and border-busting newgrass trio The Greencards, dropped just this past week. After keeping it on rotation all week, I’m pleased to report that the album, which debuted at #23 on the indie charts, proves the band is just as poised for greatness as their solo sisters above.

The Greencards aren’t new, but the trio is newly Americanized, having relocated to Nashville last year to take advantage of the US newgrass market after two strong albums put them on the map, and their newest outing finds them in excellent form. Strong songwriting, lead singer Carol Young’s powerful, sultry midrange, some blazing fast stringwork from the boys and a penchant for mellow, high-reverb production make for a rich mix — poppier and more fluid than Nickel Creek — but they sure can make the old tunes swing authentic and wild when they want to.

As with previous ventures from the “two Aussies and a Brit”, Fascination is predominantly originals, with one exception: Davey Jones, a tune originally penned and recorded by Cape Breton altpop singer, songwriter, and producer Gordie Sampson. The original is up for an International Songwriting Competition award, and can be heard on Gordie’s website; the cover is a fair bit more tender, but offers a solid introduction to the best of both artists. I’ve included a bonus track from each of the Greencards’ last two albums — a lovely Patty Griffin cover and a surprisingly true-to-the-original Fleetwood Mac cover, both of which I seem to have missed in earlier features — to get you in the mood to buy Fascination.

Cover Lay Down publishes new coverfolk features Wednesdays and Sundays. Coming soon: my kids help me review some kidfolk, and my cup runneth over with new discoveries.

1,475 comments » | bluegrass

(Re)Covered VII: More covers of and from
Sometymes Why, Eilen Jewell, Emma Beaton, Fleetwood Mac and more!

March 1st, 2009 — 12:48 am

It’s been quite a while since our last installment of our popular (Re)Covered series, in which we revisit previous posts through the new and noteworthy. But a growing collection of stunning apres-post reader submissions and a mailbox full of new upcoming works from previously-featured musicians cry out to be shared, and we’re long overdue. Without further ado, here’s some new covertracks and newly-found folk favorites worthy of your attention.

We’ve celebrated Kristin Andreassen, Ruth Merenda, and Aoife O’Donovan here on Cover Lay Down in the past, both as solo artists and as members of Uncle Earl (Andreassen), The Mammals (Merenda), and Crooked Still (O’Donovan): the three are central players in the new, rising neo-traditional cadre of folk musicians working to redefine the relationship between modern folk and more traditional forms such as bluegrass and appalachian music, and I believe them to be among the cream of the crop. I am a huge fan of these young ladies, and if you told me they were performing at two a.m. tomorrow night, separately or in combination, I’d skip out on my sleep and head over in a heartbeat, school night be damned.

Your Heart is a Glorious Machine, which drops March 10th from Signature Sounds, is the second album from this trio, which performs together as Sometymes Why, and I’ll be honest — it’s not what I expected at all. In fact, at first listen, the album is hardly folk at all. Instead, where their previous projects were grounded in both traditional and singer-songwriter folk, Your Heart comes off as a form of soul-influenced indiepop, heavy in tambourine and organ, targeted towards fans of Jenny Lewis or Feist. Heck, even the cover art speaks to a more indie audience.

Okay, so the album represents a significant departure from both their previous work as separate musicians, and their debut album as Sometymes Why. But once folk fans get past the shift in sensibility, with a few notable exceptions, Your Heart is surprisingly strong and eminently listenable, featuring a diverse collection of great songs and sweet, airy harmony vocals throughout. From the synthesized intro and sultry vocals of opener Aphrodisiaholic to the sweet and delicate acoustic guitar, harmonica and bells of Shine It and Slow Down, to the powerful Diamond, with its indie echo and a light foreground of strings and synth, this is music with a folk twang but plenty of soul, sure to appeal to modern folk audiences and the new indie crowd alike.

Unfortunately, those few notable exceptions come early in the tracklist. Both My Crazy and the single cover — a take on Concrete Blonde’s Joey — suffer from issues of pacing and too-precious overarrangement; as I wrote elsewhere when Joey first hit the blogs, “The song makes a decent light lullaby, but the arrangement here is too back and forth, and ultimately the hard rock organ, fuzz-guitar, and drum beat of the “forth” isn’t the best showcase for the team’s light folk harmonies.” Still, every new band deserves a few missteps, and even mostly-perfect albums are hard to come by; in the end, this is still a solid album, worth owning. Check out Joey below, and then head over to Signature Sounds for a few more (and more representative) samples while you pre-order.

Sea of Tears, the new disc from Eilen Jewell, represents a similar departure from her previous work. Jewell’s second album Letters from Sinners and Strangers was a masterpiece of crisp, light-hearted acoustic countryfolk swing which swept the folk-world upon its 2007 release; her work with the Sacred Shakers, which we wrote about when it emerged last summer, took that gorgeous, girlish voice and acoustic twang and applied it to old-timey gospel tunes, creating something “just a peg looser than a classic country gospel album.”

Now Jewell has moved away from that crisp, Sun Records-gone-organic sound to reimagine the jangly, twangy sounds of the British invasion of the sixties. As with the Sometymes Why album, regular listeners will likely find the result takes a while to get used to, with several songs heavy on the surf guitar coming at you right from the get-go, creating a sonic consistency easily mistaken for sameness. But upon further listen, in both these and a few softer rock ballads later on, the album ultimately attains its goal, rewarding the listener with a return to form and mastery, framed in a new sonic environment which really does pay homage to “the roots of rock and roll”, effectively and enjoyably.

Sea of Tears is due to drop from Signature Sounds in April. Here’s a new cover from the album, plus a more mellow older favorite, to prove it’s worth the wait.

In other news, a continued pursuit of the best new tradfolk heard at two recent festivals — The Boston Celtic Music Festival and The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival — has led to some lovely finds over the past few weeks, including two songs with a coincidence factor which collapses the traditional genre and performer distance between the two musical forms.

First, Scottish-bred and now Boston-based vocalist and fiddler Hannah Read, who sat in with the wonderful young folks of the Berklee Bluegrass Collage at Joe Val and performed as part of the Folk Arts Quartet at BCMFest, turned out to have a lovely cover of A Taste of Honey on her MySpace page. And second, Emma Beaton, who I wrote about here recently in glowing terms, has just unearthed a bluegrassy version of Red Rocking Chair, which she previously performed as a sparse banjo ballad; this second take is performed with some of the Berklee Bluegrass folks as well.

Coincidences abound here, including the fact that Hannah has photos of herself performing with both Aoife O’Donovan and Kristin Andreassen on her MySpace page. It would also seem that Berkley is a source to watch right now. Those living in the Boston area would be well advised to keep an eye on the Notlob concert series, which is featuring many folks from this scene this year: Hannah Read will perform with the Folk Arts Quartet on April 11; both Emma Beaton and the Boston Boys, which feature some of the Berklee Bluegrass crowd, will appear on May 9.

I’ve included a wonderful old-timey bluegrass cover of Rider on an Orphan Train here, too, because I picked it up at the Joe Val Fest after finally figuring out what all the fuss was about Dry Branch Fire Squad. We featured contemporary folk dulcimer-player David Massengil, who wrote the tune, when he appeared this summer at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival.

Finally: our recent feature on the songs of Fleetwood Mac led to a few wonderful recommendations from the peanut gallery; I’ve never been so grateful to have readers who consider the blog a true dialogue as I was when I tracked down Anna Ternheim‘s sweet, ringing acoustic take on Little Lies, and the gentle countryfolk harmonies and slide guitar of Nora O’Connor‘s version of That’s Alright. We’ll make a Fleetwood Mac fan of me yet, I guess. Keep ‘em coming, folks.

Are you an artist, a promoter, or a fan with a cover to share? Send ‘em along via the contact link at the top of the page — all songs considered, just like it says on NPR.

1,878 comments » | (Re)Covered, bluegrass, Eilen Jewell, Fleetwood Mac, Kristin Andreassen

Love and Bluegrass: A Weekend Preview
(Joe Val Bluegrass this weekend; Valentine’s posts live)

February 12th, 2009 — 11:01 pm

Just a quick off-schedule note today to let folks know that I’ll be spending most of the weekend at the always amazing Joe Val Bluegrass Festival out at the Sheraton in in Framingham, MA, and if you’re within the driving circle, I hope you’ll join me.   

As I noted in our glowing review of last year’s festival, despite the stereotype of bluegrass as a predominantly Southern American phenomenon, New England turns out to have a long-standing tradition of great bluegrass. The Joe Val Fest, which honors the memory of one of our most talented native sons, tends to draw some amazing talent, and this year’s line-up is no exception.  

Here’s a trio of great covers which feature just a few this year’s many great performers; the second cut may be familiar to Cover Lay Down regulars, but it certainly bears repeating.

In other news: our babysitter has a boyfriend, and thus a Valentine’s date; happily, however, she’s a triplet, and was willing to lend us a sister for childcare. The wife and I will be out at a sushi and wine bar Saturday night, and you’re NOT invited to join us for this one.

Happily, however, for those irregulars who may have missed it, all three previous Cover Lay Down Valentine’s Coverfolk posts are now live for your enjoyment. Whether you’re looking for solace, soothing sounds, or romantic snuggle-up soundtrack, here’s hoping you’ll find what you need to make the date right in our growing coverfolk collection of heartsongs.

977 comments » | bluegrass, Festival Coverfolk