Category: Crooked Still

A Decade of Crooked Still
With an EXCLUSIVE Beatles cover from their upcoming EP!

September 13th, 2011 — 01:24 pm

Crooked Still is one of our most-covered artists here on Cover Lay Down, and for good reason: their work continues to resonate and evolve in deep and breathtaking ways, while retaining the core beauty and fire which has marked their work since the beginning. From their emergence in 2001 as a firey quartet out of the Boston collegiate scene, framed around an innovative, improvisational style, and high-energy stringplay at the center of what was otherwise a sparse yet nuanced tradfolk stringband sound, to the sonic expansion of last year’s Some Strange Country, their sound and sensibility have been a personal touchstone, an ongoing revelation of the crystal perfection that can be found in reinventing the American songbook.

But the seminal Boston-based quartet-turned-quintet – equally at home at Celtic, folk, and Bluegrass festivals – is also worth recognition for the influence they have had on their peers. As I wrote last year when Some Strange Country was released, through a decade of live performance and pitch-perfect studio recordings, Crooked Still has 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.

And their impact on the world of music at large continues to reverberate, as the sound of the cello continues to wend and weave its way into the folk canon, and the newest post-grass bands continue to emerge and experiment with the beauty and pain that can be found in the songs of and beyond the Appalachian region.

We first featured Crooked Still here at Cover Lay Down in June of 2008, just a few months after our own birth as a blog; at the time, the band was about to release their first album as a 5-piece, sans oddball founding cellist Rashaad Eggleston but with new members Tristan Clarridge (cello) and Brittany Haas (fiddle), and we were thrilled to be able to report that the aptly-named Still Crooked, although inevitably shifted somewhat from their earlier work, was a stellar addition to their body of work.

Since then, we’ve celebrated together as Crooked Still graced stages at Grey Fox and Falcon Ridge, Newport and Telluride; as they released new, transformative covers of the Rolling Stones and more, and revived others from earlier albums, including warm, pitch-perfect takes on Bill Monroe, Ola Belle Johnson, Doc Watson, Gillian Welch, and a holy host of traditional folksongs. And all along, we’ve found compatriots, from USA Today to Sing Out to NPR, who named the band among their favorites, citing their influence, their deliberate craftsmanship, and their musical genius as common markers of their success.

Now, this year, Crooked Still hits their one-decade milestone, and although they have announced that they’ll be taking a small hiatus from touring in 2012 in order to keep the creative juices flowing, and to maintain the core friendship and collaboration which have underlaid their success, they’re still going strong. Indeed, in honor of that sacred ground covered, Autumn arrives with a dual promise: a series of October concerts in and around New England celebrating their tenth anniversary together, culminating in two 10 Year Anniversary Shows at the Somerville Theater on October 14 and 15 (and followed by a swing through the American Northwest), and a brand new EP titled Friends of Fall, to be released on Signature Sounds on October 25.

Having steeped in it overnight, we’re proud to report that Friends of Fall is a powerful addition to the Crooked Still canon. A seven-song EP which contains delightful, sweet, energetic covers of Paul Simon’s American Tune, John Hartford, and The Beatles, plus four well-crafted originals, the collection bears the signature sound of past and present that the band’s envelope-pushing canon has come to represent. Gleeful and somber in turn as always, framed around the stunning, hopping banjo wizardry of Dr. Gregory Listz, the slow, low rhythms of double bass man Corey DiMarino, the tight dual stringwork of Haas and Clarridge, and of course, the beautiful, breathy vocals and arrangements of Aoife O’Donovan, the EP is a delight, and an apt reminder of the impact and depth of Crooked Still as they celebrate their legacy.

And so, as our own celebration, we present a much-expanded compendium of coverage from a decade on the road, in the studio, and at the forefront of the new folk canon – including an exclusive pre-release cover of The Beatles’ We Can Work It Out, from Friends of Fall, which races and swoops like a desperate lover’s heartbeat, and has me dancing around the room as we speak. Taken as a set, in historical sequence, you can hear the evolution from crazed and rearranged to something deeper, something richer, marked by the emergence of O’Donovan as a songwriting force, and of the musical collaboration which underscores their success.

You can hear, in other words, why Crooked Still remains a cornerstone of the Boston Folk revival, even as their members continue to push the envelope, together and through more experimental and traditional side projects. And why the release of new work into the Crooked Still canon remains a cause for rejoicing, even as we celebrate the journey which brought them here.

  • Crooked Still: We Can Work It Out (orig. The Beatles)

    (from Friends of Fall, 2011)

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and downloadable coversets twice a week, all in support the artists we love. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

1 comment » | Crooked Still

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

Crooked Still Covers: Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Gillian Welch, Tradfolk

June 19th, 2008 — 11:21 pm

Boston-based “alternative folk/bluegrass” band Crooked Still emerged at the edge of the newgrass movement just after the turn of the century, and much of their subsequent success is due to the talents of the group members and founders: banjo wizard Dr. Gregory Liszt, double bass man Corey DiMarino, and breathy, emotive singer Aoife O’Donovan. But if their star rose quickly, it was thanks in no small part to a then-novel approach to traditional song, one which placed master cellist and all-around oddball Rushad Eggleston’s innovative, improvisational style and high-energy stringplay at the center of what was otherwise a sparse yet nuanced tradfolk stringband sound.

And rise it did. By 2004, the band was playing mainstage sets at both Newport Folk Festival and Falcon Ridge Folk Fest, where their debut album Hop High outsold all competition. Two years later, the release of Shaken By A Low Sound brought us more of the same, cementing their reputation in both the folkworld and the bluegrass circuit as a band worth watching.

And then, last year, Crooked Still announced that Rushad would be leaving the group.

Many of us in the folkworld feared that this would be the end of Crooked Still. Long before Ben Sollee’s avant-folk celloplay made him the darling of the blogworld, Eggleston had set the pace and standard for the cello as a contemporary instrument outside of the string quartet or orchestra setting, both through his work with Crooked Still, and as a member of several groups with master fiddler Darol Anger. Replacing Eggleston with another cellist seemed like a no-brainer for a group that had made their name trading on the interplay between Rushad and the other group members; adding another string player seemed like a safe bet, too. But would it be enough?

In a word: YES.

Since their inception, Crooked Still has always handled traditional folk music exceptionally well, and this new line-up continues the tradition with aplomb, bringing new life to timeless songs. But where their previous albums leaned heavily on tradsongs such as Little Sadie, Shady Grove and Darlin’ Corey — songs made familiar, if not popular, by older generations of folk and bluegrass artists, from Doc Watson to Jerry Garcia — their new album Still Crooked, on folk label Signature Sounds, digs deeper than previous efforts, tracing the roots of traditional folk through other, more obscure carriers, such as Ola Belle Johnson and Sidney Carter. The result is a set of songs that sound both fresh and timeless, in ways that their previous efforts could not be without escaping their songs’ history.

There’s also some surprises, here. Tristan Clarridge plays the cello with more subtlety than than Rushad did, but this only deepens the sound from where it was before. The addition of fiddler Brittany Haas brings a keening high note to the mix; in slower songs, especially, the higher stringsound rebalances lead singer Aoife O’Donovan’s breathy voice towards the sonic center of the Crooked Still sound, where once her vocals competed with the cello for prominence. The fuller setting brings out a side of Aoife as singer that is even better than before. The bigger sound that results is potent, and totally enveloping.

Those who could not imagine Crooked Still without their founding cellist need not be concerned. More importantly, though, those who thought it was impossible to improve on the Crooked Still sound will be surprised. The “new” Crooked Still sound is more traditional, in terms of genre, but it is also simultaneously something more than it was, a stellar maturation of previous efforts. Nowhere is this more evident than in Low Down and Dirty, Aoife’s first original composition for Crooked Still, a classic revenge ballad with a twist that comes across as some of the best folk I’ve heard in ages. Still sharp, wielded exquisitely, the cutting edge of traditional folk music remains in good hands.

Wanna hear it for yourself? You’ll have to buy the album for the originals, and the tradfolk; almost every song is a ten out of ten. But here’s a genuine label-approved Cover Lay Down exclusive, not one but TWO covertracks from Still Crooked, which hits stores next week: a wild, spunky take on an old Mississippi John Hurt tune, and a sultry, quiet public domain number with stunning backing vocals from Levon Helm’s daughter Amy, a fine musician in her own right. Plus a few older covertracks from Crooked Still’s earlier releases, to give newcomers a sense of their overall sound. Listen, and then run right out and buy Still Crooked to hear the rest. Or just come on out to Falcon Ridge Folk Fest this July, and see ‘em in person.

Since we’re in the mood, today’s bonus coversongs feature other cello players from the folkworld: newcomer Ben Sollee and his amazing Sam Cooke cover, and a cut from Fiddlers 4, a wonderful neo-appalachian quartet from some of the best genre-crossing string players in the business, featuring none other than Rashad himself on the low notes. Plus a youtube link for a great, spare solo cover by young folkcellist Lindsay Mac, who will also perform at Falcon Ridge this year.

Previously on Cover Lay Down: Crooked Still covers tradsong Wind and Rain

Further reading: Folk tastemaster Songs:Illinois has two MORE Crooked Still songs: one from Still Crooked, and one from Hop High.

915 comments » | Ben Sollee, Crooked Still, Fiddlers 4, Gillian Welch, Lindsay Mac, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson

Covered In Folk: Gillian Welch (Glen Phillips, Ryan Adams, Alison Krauss, Crooked Still)

January 19th, 2008 — 06:45 pm

Hope no one minds an early “Sunday” post this week; my brother and his wife are on their way in from Brooklyn for the long weekend, and I don’t get to see them as often as I’d like. I’ll have a short post up for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, if I can; in the meantime, enjoy today’s feature on “American Primitive” folkartist Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings, the tenth post in our popular Covered in Folk series, where we pay tribute to the songwriting talents of a single artist.

I saw Gillian Welch at the Green River Festival a while back, and it was a revelation. From ten rows back, her summer dress blowing in the hot breeze, her twanged voice, the doubled guitars, her narratives of Southern poverty and pain, all conspired to bring the hot scent of jasmine and Southern dust on the breeze even as we lounged on the New England grass. The crowd swelled. The rest of the afternoon passed in a haze.

Though it was her vocal talents in O Brother, Where Art Thou which put her on a mass-marketable par with Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris, it was clear to anyone watching that, as a musical phenomenon, Gillian Welch was a force to be reckoned with in the growing americana folk movement.

More often than not, Gillian Welch is the performing name for two musicians, Welch herself and her ubiquitous partner David Rawlings; when they work with others each gets billing, but in performance as a duo, the pronoun “she” is the standard convention. Welch appears as frontwoman, and can certainly stand her own as a powerful force in a particular subgenre of american folk music, but they share writing credit on many songs, and their harmonies — vocal and guitar — are notable and recognizable.

And what is the Gillian Welch sound? Welch’s voice is well-suited for the raw, backporch paces she puts it through; together, as songwriters and performers, these two musicians build on this vocal base to create an americana sound Welch calls “American Primitive”, something simultanously sparer and more richly nuanced than anything a solo artist could do with guitar or voice. Call it old-timey folk — unproduced and jangly, sparse and stripped down from the more traditional old-timey sound of groups like Old Crow Medicine Show, Welch and Rawlings’ musical compatriots and touring partners.

There are times when Gillian Welch sounds like an old Alan Lomax field recording, something timeless, raw and elegant in its simplicity and honest rough presentation. The lyrics, too, tend towards the trope and narrative themes — rural life, loss and hardship — of early American southern field folk. Given all that, it’s no wonder that over the last decade or so, since even before the release of debut album Revival in 1996, the folk end of the americana movement has begun to pick up her songs and give them the traditional treatment.

Today, some select covers from the increasingly vast spectrum of sound that pays tribute to this weathered, shy, still-young matriarch of the new americana folk set. Interesting, how many retain the original Welch/Rawlings close harmonies, as if the tenor echo were as much a part of the original text to be covered as the powerful words, melody, and chord. Perhaps it is.

Crooked Still hops with cello, banjo and bass; Emmylou Harris fills out the sound in her inimitable style; newcomers Dakota Blonde mourn a life alone with accordian and guitar and drumthunder. The infinite possibility of nuance and power keeps this oft-covered, well-worn tune fresh, despite its weary lyric.

Two electrified covers which take this heavy tune to its natural folk rock conclusion. Alt-country rocker Ryan Adams‘ shortened version, off the Destroyer Sessions, is full-on Neil Young, guitars and vocals tangled up in angst. Singer-songwriter and ex-Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips‘ version is darker, more pensive, more beautiful.

At first listen, Peter Mulvey‘s classically-fingerpicked version teeters on the overly maudlin, and previously-posted girlgroup Red Molly‘s three-voiced approach seems to cost them emotive potential. But listen again — these grow on you.

Fellow Gillian Welch O Brother, Where Are Thou muse Alison Krauss and her star-studded band Union Station make a sweet live bluegrass ballad of an old-timey wallflower’s love song.

Kidfolk queen Elizabeth Mitchell brings us a light-hearted tale well-suited for the bedtime ears of the next generation of traditional folk fans.

This sultry gospel-jazz take from the Elan Mehler Quartet is sweet with breathy sax and slow-rolling piano. It isn’t folk, but it makes the perfect capstone to any set of Gillian Welch covers.

Don’t forget to click on artist names above to purchase the best of the modern folk world from bluegrass to bluesfolk direct from the source. And, if you don’t already have them, buy Gillian Welch’s four incredible albums direct from her website.

Today’s bonus coversongs hold back a bit, that we might eventually bring you a full post of Gillian Welch covering other artists. But here’s two collaborative efforts that give Rawlings and Welch their own billing, to tide you over until then:

863 comments » | Alison Krauss, Crooked Still, Dakota Blonde, David Rawlings, Elan Mehler Quartet, Elizabeth Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Glen Phillips, Peter Mulvey, Red Molly, Ryan Adams

Single Song Sunday: Rain and Snow (On Traditional Folksongs as Tabula Rosa) Plus 3 bonus Grateful Dead rainsongs

December 16th, 2007 — 03:01 am

Whether stripped-down so as not to overwhelm the authenticity of the song and singer, or jazzed up to resonate with modern musical sensibilities, it is the passage of familiar song, motif, and situation between audience and performer which makes the “folk” in folk music. Songs about trains are ultimately songs about longing; songs about the road resonate with those who wander and those who long for a change, though in different ways. Such songs play broadly to universal themes, the better to leave room for such connection. In collapsing the participant/observer gap, the songs have connected folk artists and folk audiences for a century or more.

We might say, then, that traditional songs like Rain and Snow (also called Cold Rain and Snow in some collections) are both heart and origin of folk music. Problematically, however, these same qualities which make tradfolk accessible can make writing about traditional songs an exercise in futility.

Many tradfolk songs have loose lyrics, thin and incomplete, which drift from interpretation to interpretation, and thus invite the sort of minute lyrical analysis only a music historian could love. Today’s featured song is perhaps an extreme example of the problem of interpretation. It contains only twelve lines, four of which are merely repetitions of the previous line, and its lyrics are vague, naming lifelong trouble between narrator and spouse without ascribing cause.

Similarly, since the origins of traditional american folk songs like Rain and Snow are murky at best, historical analysis is no better an approach to understanding. Even the best write-ups can end up an exercise in cover geneology, offering little more than a litany of who-sang-and-when, ad infinitum. And this is the anathema of blogging, I suppose, which seems to me most specifically a medium of anecdotal small-scale sharing and interpretation, not mere enumeration.

But this is not to say that there is nothing we can say. The best approach to traditional song interpretation, I think, begins with a simple acknowledgement of what a song is. It is the parameters of possibility which make traditional folk song unique and interesting.

Rain and Snow, for example, is a beautiful, simple, melancholy song of spousal dissatisfaction which can be interpreted as many ways as humans can express such emotion. The way the doubled-lyrics degrade from storylyric to simple image to repeated, strung-out phrase at each verse’s end requires singers to howl their emotional choices open-voweled. The song’s last line leaves open the possibility that the song’s narrator has been the cause of his own resolution, without necessarily calling it either way.

When combined, these traits make for powerful potential in the hands of the coverartist. The unresolved narrative, coupled with the simple lyrical and chord patterns, leaves ample room for true interpretation. Indeed, it is the tonality and approach of a given coverartist which will ultimately determine whether we take these lyrics as melancholy or resigned, the narrative as sinister or merely regretful.

Rain and Snow is generally considered a traditional fiddle-and-folk appalachian folksong, though old folkies likely know it best from the works of Pentagle and the Grateful Dead; it is so much a part of the Deadhead canon, in fact, that it was included on jazz/folk/world music label Shanachie‘s “The Music Never Stopped: Roots of the Grateful Dead”. Rather than rehash those old familiars, here’s a set of six stellar post-millenial versions, from folk to roots to celtic to true blue bluegrass, just to prove that there’s always more life to be had in tradsongs, the lifeblood of folk.

As always, wherever possible, artist and album links on Cover Lay Down go directly to each artist’s preferred sources for purchase — the best way to support musicians without giving money to unecessary middlemen. Order now, and put some tradition under the tree.

Today’s bonus rainsongs have all been performed by members of the Grateful Dead at one time or another, according to the Grateful Dead Lyric and Songfinder:

  • New Riders of the Purple Sage founder Dave Nelson covers the Grateful Dead’s Box of Rain (live)
  • Folk supergroup Redbird do a jangly version of Dylan’s Buckets of Rain
  • Neo-folkgrassers Crooked Still cover softly tradsong Wind and Rain

Previously on Cover Lay Down: Folk covers of songs of snow and winter

192 comments » | Be Good Tanyas, Blue Mountain, Crooked Still, Dave Nelson, Del McCoury, Grateful Dead, Peter Mulvey, Redbird, Single Song Sunday, solas, The Chieftains