Review: The Basstree String Band

The Basstree String Band have released a new CD featuring 5 tracks of traditional, soulful bluegrass.

The trio hail from Norfolk and Lincolnshire, with a lineup of Howard Burton on banjo, Mark Jones on guitar and Asa Hardy-Brownlie on bass. The band first formed in 2017, though Howard and Mark have been making music together in various forms for around 25 years. In recent months, they’ve been building up momentum with gigs, festival appearances and media coverage including an interview with Bluegrass Today.

The Basstree String Band

The band have gone for quality over quantity on this release, with each of the 5 tracks coming in at less than 3 minutes. But this is ample time for the group to show off their instrumental chops and tight vocal harmonies, putting their own spin on songs that have been performed by the likes of Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline and Jim and Jesse.

Old-style bluegrass is delivered in the form of Six White Horses, Them Blues is an upbeat toe-tapper, Seven Lonely Days offers a bluesy, early rock ‘n’ roll feel, while the vocal harmonies really shine on the melancholic If That’s The Way You Feel. The one instrumental track, Dixie Hoedown, gives the group a chance to showcase their technical skills, with some impressive banjo and guitar picking from Howard and Mark.

If you’d like to hear more, the album will be available to stream on all major platforms from September 19th. If you prefer your music in physical form, head on over to the band’s website where you can purchase the CD.

Review: Space Guitars by Pet Yeti

Album cover for Pet Yeti's Space Guitars

Pet Yeti release their debut album Space Guitars on September 13th.

Previously known as the Propane Brothers, the band have changed their name in anticipation of the release, but their commitment to producing tightly arranged, high-quality bluegrass remains the same.

Pet Yeti

Featuring members of Cup O’Joe, Cardboard Fox and Hot Rock Pilgrims, Pet Yeti brings together some of the best young talent on the UK bluegrass scene – Benjamin Agnew on bass, Reuben Agnew on guitar, John Breese on banjo, Kieran Towers on fiddle and Joe Tozer on mandolin. The majority of vocals come from the Agnew brothers, who create the kind of effortless, spine-tingling harmonies you’d expect from bluegrass siblings.

Space Guitars features eight originals, with all band members contributing to songwriting duties. Things don’t stray too far from the traditional, with energetic banjo kickoffs, fiery fiddle solos and lyrical themes of heartbreak, drinking and long journeys home. However, it’s clear the main influence is the more poppy, indie-orientated sound that’s developed in recent years – think Nickel Creek, Deadly Gentlemen and Joy Kills Sorrow. This is perfectly encapsulated in the title track, a fun ditty that closes the album with multiple Back To The Future references.

Album cover for Pet Yeti's Space Guitars
Space Guitars Cover Art

Three covers complete the track listing. Bluegrass/old-time standards Hello City Limits and I’ve Endured won’t raise too many eyebrows, but album opener Said I Loved You…But I Lied, a cover of Michael Bolton’s 1993 hit, might just unsettle a few purists (or even bring on a few pangs of nostalgia if you’re that way inclined).

Overall, this is a well-balanced album that offers a good dose of old-fashioned, hard-driving bluegrass combined with more modern influences. Exceptional cover art from Jacob Matthess rounds off the package nicely.

Space Guitars will be available 13th September 2019, and Pet Yeti will be playing a number of gigs to support the release. Visit the band’s website for all the details.

Review: Acorns and Toolshed by Ben Winship

Ben Winship in his toolshed

Ben Winship releases two albums on July 19th – his first solo work in 22 years.

The Idaho-based singer, songwriter and mandolinist is familiar to UK audiences having visited many times to tour with Growling Old Men and Brother Mule. Whilst those bands have released several albums in recent years, this will be Ben’s first solo outing since One Shoe Left in 1997.

Having taken so long to put these new solo projects together, Ben is going all out and releasing both albums at once. He explains, “I figured, why wait? Kind of like bread – I really want you to have it while its fresh. Plus, if I wait another 22 years, I’ll be pretty old…”.

Cover artwork of Acorns
Acorns

First up, we have Acorns, an extremely listenable and straightforward old-time affair. Acorns is mostly comprised of Ben’s original work but has a few traditional tunes and covers thrown in for good measure.

Filled with wonderful musicianship from the likes of Brittany Haas, Chris Coole and Rayna Gellert, this album was recorded live in just a few days and as Ben says, it celebrates “the community spirit of real time, spontaneous music making”.

Highlights include a brooding version of the usually upbeat New River Train, and the reflective Fit To Be Tied that segues sweetly into Sail Away Ladies. Ben also takes the opportunity to recreate some of his past work, with Brother Mule’s Katy Bar The Door and Growling Old Men’s Lily Green getting old-timey makeovers.

Toolshed cover artwork
Toolshed

With electric guitars, piano, drums and horn sections, Toolshed is a different beast altogether. It mixes blues, funk, dixie and folk, and in places is very reminiscent of Ben’s Fishing Music project.

As with Acorns, this album features lots of well-known names from bluegrass and Americana circles, with Mollie O’Brien and Joe Newberry contributing harmonies, and Britain’s Ben Somers lending his sax chops. A stand-out track is country-rock anthem Crossing The Great Divide, which employs a “pseudo-Band style arrangement” topped off with the soulful vocals of Infamous Stringduster Travis Book.

Toolshed strays a long way from the old-time of Acorns, but anyone familiar with Ben’s back catalogue shouldn’t find the material particularly shocking (the one exception being bonus track I Thought You Were A Goat #2, about which Ben confesses “my creative train veered SERIOUSLY off course…” – we’ll leave you to find out what that means).

Ben Winship

Though widely separated on a musical front, Acorns and Toolshed share some common themes, most notably perhaps, conservation and the natural environment – hardly surprising given Ben lives in the shadow of the Rockies. Phoebe’s Rest is inspired by Wyoming naturalist Bert Raynes, and Always The Mountain makes use of Aldo Leopold’s call for us to “think like a mountain” (a phrase recently adopted as the hashtag for rewilding projects in Scotland). What’s The Matter With The Well? is a lament about the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, originally written in 2010 but included here because as Ben says, “it’s important to be reminded of this fiasco so that we can prevent anything like it from happening again”.

Whilst neither album is strictly (and some might argue, not even remotely) bluegrass, they are hugely entertaining listens and the impressive list of musicians on both recordings should pique the interest of any fan of the genre.

Both Acorns and Toolshed are released on July 19th. CDs can be purchased direct from Ben’s website, with digital downloads available at Bandcamp and streaming via Spotify.

Photo review: Man About a Horse

Man About a Horse continued their debut UK tour on July 6th with a stop at Bath’s American Museum and Gardens.

The Philadelphia band could not have wished for a prettier venue, with the audience seated around a grass amphitheatre and the stage surrounded by gorgeous plants and flowers. The weather thankfully played its part for this outdoor gig, with blue skies and soaring temperatures.

Man About a Horse
The picturesque amphitheatre and stage

Over the course of the afternoon, Man About a Horse performed two well-received sets of original and traditional material, along with a few covers by artists such as Gram Parsons.

A workshop filled the break between sets, with the band covering the history and mechanics of the music and explaining each instrument’s role, before performing a few numbers to demonstrate what they had just taught.

Here’s a few photos and a video from what was a very entertaining and successful event (click the photos to see full size).

Man About a Horse played Bath on July 6th 2019, and continue their UK tour until July 14th. Full tour dates can be found here.

Live review: John Reischman and The Jaybirds

John Reischman and The Jaybirds completed a UK tour this month, which included a stop at Manorbier YHA in Pembrokeshire on May 8th.

The North American band formed over 20 years ago and now have 7 recordings to their name. This intimate show was promoted by Pembrokeshire Eclectic Music Society, and featured two sets of captivating and superbly-executed bluegrass. The setlist included a good mix from the Jaybirds’ back catalogue, as well as a few numbers showcasing individual band members’ songwriting and instrumental skills.

The John Reischman fans in attendance were treated to a few of his most popular mandolin tunes including near-legendary waltz The North Shore, and Little Pine Siskin, a cute, endearing number that has become a firm favourite in UK bluegrass jams recently.

Here’s a few photos from the night.

Photo review: Bristol Bluegrass Festival

The Rosellys

Bristol Bluegrass and Americana Festival was held on March 1st – 2nd, and featured two concerts alongside workshops for banjo, fiddle and guitar.

The festival is held at The Folk House and is now in its 10th year. However, last year’s was cancelled at the last minute due to heavy snowfall, leading to doubts that it could be run again. This year’s festival was therefore extra special, a welcome return for an event that may have been lost if not for the courage and hard work of its organisers.

I had the privilege of being event photographer for the weekend, documenting the performances of seven acts who delivered a variety of bluegrass, Americana and folk styles. The best shots are below, or you can view the whole lot in this Flickr album.

The Hogranch
The Hogranch

The Hogranch
The Hogranch

The Hogranch
The Hogranch

The Rye Sisters
The Rye Sisters

The Rye Sisters
The Rye Sisters

The Rosellys
The Rosellys

The Rosellys
The Rosellys

The Rosellys
The Rosellys

Thunderbridge Bluegrass Band
Thunderbridge Bluegrass Band

The Often Herd
The Often Herd

The Often Herd
The Often Herd

Jonas and Jane
Jonas and Jane

Jonas and Jane
Jonas and Jane

Goat Roper Rodeo Band
Goat Roper Rodeo Band

Goat Roper Rodeo Band
Goat Roper Rodeo Band

Goat Roper Rodeo Band
Goat Roper Rodeo Band

Review: New CD from Joe K. Walsh

Joe K. Walsh is back with a new CD, a new beard and a new middle initial to differentiate himself from that other Joe Walsh that the internet always confuses him with.

Borderland is a collection of 11 songs and instrumentals and is a mellow, highly intelligent and beautifully arranged recording. As with Joe’s previous releases, it showcases not just his own abilities but those of many of his peers. In this instance, you will hear the likes of Courtney Hartman and Brittany Haas, both of whom also help with songwriting duties.

Joe is an accomplished mandolinist who can play full-on bluegrass as well as more technical and complex pieces without compromising on taste or seeming like he’s trying to outwit his audience.

This album mostly consists of original material, but there’s also a delightful version of fiddle tune Cumberland Gap, for which Joe cheekily apologises to the old-time police.

It’s all rather lovely and extremely listenable.

The album can be streamed and purchased through bandcamp.

Blog: On tour with The Deadly Gentlemen

By Maria Wallace

Spring was on the horizon, and we were getting itchy feet after a long winter. What could be better than to follow the latest Deadly Gentlemen tour through the highways and byways of England for a few days? It’s our favourite kind of mini break.

For those unfamiliar with the Gentlemen, this young five-piece emerged from the roots music hotbed of Boston a couple of years ago, led by Crooked Still banjo player Greg Liszt, who also writes most of the lyrics. Originally featuring a spoken word/rap style of vocals, the band has morphed into something a little more conventional but still different from the norm, with some surprisingly sweet songs interspersed with the more lively numbers. We’d got to know Greg slightly from all the Crooked Still concerts we attended, which is how The Deadly Gentlemen came on to our radar – along with the fact that they have been consistently championed by Katherine and Jer here at ukbluegrass.com. After seeing the band in Yorkshire in November, we were so impressed that we headed over to Germany in December to see them play on the Bluegrass Jamboree tour.

The lads are obviously keen to make their mark in the UK as they were back on tour here again in March. They started out in style with a house concert in Edinburgh followed by a spot on the bill at the Celtic Connections Big Top concert on Skye.

We began our mini-odyssey with a local-ish gig in Sheffield a few days later. It was a Monday night in the Backroom at the Greystones pub, and started out a bit quiet during the support band slots. But once the Gentlemen took to the stage, the crowd had grown to a respectable number and gave the lads a warm welcome. They delivered a lively set which included cracking versions of Bullet in My Shoulder and their original fiddle tune Ol’ Barnes.

Their instrumental virtuosity is constantly apparent, Greg’s precision riff ‘n’ rollin’ banjo complemented by Mike Barnett’s soaring, occasionally jazzy fiddle licks. Dominick Leslie on mandolin keeps a constant rhythmic drive and Stash Wyslouch contributes solid rhythm guitar as well as some gorgeous breaks. Sam Grisman regularly throws in interesting melodic runs as well as holding everything down on bass. And then there is the singing, shared among the whole band (though Stash and Greg take the lion’s share of lead vocals) and ranging from the sweetest of harmony singing to portions of spoken word and even synchronised shouting! It’s very impressive. But what really shines through is their enjoyment in playing together and their love of the songs. This is one of those bands where the energy reaches out and reels in the audience.

The following day, we travelled down to London in unseasonably warm late March weather for the next concert. The Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell is a funky pub with some excellent beer on tap (some even brewed in Camden). Opening band The Wagon Tales kicked off the evening in fine style, featuring a mix of traditional and modern bluegrass with a quirky twist. The crowd was well warmed up by the time The Deadly Gentlemen came on, and they didn’t disappoint, galloping into a brilliant rendition of Police at the outset which rocked the house.

Unfortunately Sam Grisman had come down with food poisoning that afternoon, but the show went on with Sam manfully playing his part, marred only slightly by his periodic sheltering behind his bass and chucking up in a bucket! (I kid you not). In the end the Gentlemen cut their set slightly short, and poor old Sam got an absolutely massive ovation. Luckily they had a day off the next day, as did we, allowing us to enjoy the delights of a walk on Hampstead Heath in the sunshine.

Our journey continued on Thursday with a trip out to the Far East – Norwich, that is. The boys were playing at the Bicycle Shop, which turned out to be a really cool little café/bar. Support came from Them Harvey Boys who delivered a lively set round a single mic. They finished off with the Bee Gees’ Staying Alive which went down very well with the sell out crowd crammed into the tiny downstairs gig room.

The Deadly Gentlemen stormed it with a super set which included a spontaneous outing for Lonesome Road Blues as a tribute to the late Earl Scruggs, who had passed away the previous day. Impressive renditions of songs from the upcoming new album included the driving Bored of the Raging and the gentle Faded Star. These joined the classic Moonshiner, gorgeous Carry Me to Home and funky Bad Habit Blues in a varied set, nicely balanced to show off both the delicate and crazy sides of the Gentlemen’s musical oeuvre. A crowd-pleasing finish saw them leave the miniature corner stage and line up among the punters in front of the bar for an acoustic finale of Working followed by the fiddle tune frenzy of Locusts Took the Child. After the gig the Bicycle Shop didn’t seem in any hurry to close, and the Gentlemen were kind enough to share a beer and a chat with us while they ate their post-show tapas.

Like many bluegrass musicians, they are involved with other musical projects as well as being busy recording and touring with The Deadly Gentlemen, and the connections are many and varied. Sam plays occasionally with his father’s band the David Grisman Quintet and along with Stash, is a member of the Earth Stringband, recently touring in South-east Asia. Dominick has played with all manner of bluegrass luminaries including Missy Raines and Bill Evans and is also a regular member of Grant Gordy’s band. Mike plays frequently with Tony Trischka as well as with the David Grisman and Grant Gordy collectives. Greg, as mentioned, has been a member of Crooked Still since 2001, although that band is taking a year’s hiatus during 2012.

After our late night in Norwich, we had a pleasant time the following day, touring through rural Norfolk and Suffolk, looking at old stone churches and visiting the occasional country pub. Tonight’s gig (our last of the tour) was to be held in the slightly surreal surroundings of Easton Park Farm, which turned out to be a tourist attraction complete with horses, lambs, goats and pot-bellied pigs. The band seemed to find this highly entertaining and roamed around before show time taking pictures of themselves with the aforementioned critters. The gig was staged by the same promoters who hold the alt-country/Americana Maverick Festival here in the summer time.

Inside the concert barn, it was after 10pm by the time the Gentlemen hit the stage, and the two support acts had left the audience in a rather quiet and sleepy mood. The lads soon livened things up with their usual energetic groove on songs including The Road is Rocky, the funky 99 Days and another stonking version of Lonesome Road Blues with some glorious fiddle and banjo breaks from Mike and Greg. We stood at the side and had a bit of a dance in the aisle. The latest road trip was over and it was time to make our farewells and start the midnight trek north.

Look out for The Deadly Gentlemen on their next tour and for their new CD which should be released soon. In the meantime you can check out the wonderful Carry Me to Home album at Bandcamp.

Read more about Maria’s musical adventures on her blog at www.truenorthmusic.co.uk.

Blog: Jaywalkers – BBC Young Folk Award

Earlier this month, teenage bluegrass duo Jaywalkers competed in the semi-finals of the BBC Young Folk Award. The band is 19-year-old Michael Giverin on mandolin and 15-year-old Jay Bradberry on fiddle, guitar and vocals. Jay has provided this report of their experience at the semi-finals weekend.

After an accumulation of weekend practices and general hard work upon discovering that we (Jaywalkers) had made it into the BBC Young Folk Award Semi Finals, we couldn’t help but be excited at the arrival of the competition’s audition weekend held in Stratford upon Avon. In the previous few weeks to the weekend itself, we had had several opportunities to perform our 8 minute set to an audience: a folk night held in Bromborough, Helsby’s monthly open mic night, a primary school assembly and finally, at the weekly session lead by Stuart Williams in Helsby, each Thursday. With kind wishes of luck and support from all of our Helsby friends, it was time to embark on our trip to Stratford upon Avon for the BBC Young Folk Award Semi Finals!

As you can probably imagine, at this point we were thoroughly thrilled at the prospect of where we were going, and even a somewhat stressful journey of crowded trains and multiple items of luggage couldn’t wipe the excited grins from our faces. Upon arriving at Stratford upon Avon station, we discovered 2 other semi finalist musicians also waiting for their transportation to the accommodation where we would be spending the following 2 nights. Shortly, our lift arrived in the form of Joe Heap; one of the many staff from organisers “Mrs Casey Music” that made our weekend such an enjoyable experience (MCM is a music events organisation formed in 1974 to develop the presentation of Folk music in this country).

After settling in our accommodation and eating etc, it was time for the introductory session where we met the weekend tutors: Damien Barber (of Demon Barbers Road show) and Tom McConville (“The Newcastle Fiddler”), as well as the rest of the Mrs Casey Music and AVLS staff. At first more of a formal take-it-in-turns-to-perform set up, the session, as the night progressed, relaxed as we became familiar with each other’s playing and music styles. One of the unique things about the semi-finalists chosen this year is how completely different all the acts were; we had group sessions that swung from medleys of traditional tunes and folk songs to blues and a rockier approach – even incorporating our own bluegrass roots into the music being played at times!

Early Saturday morning brought the departure to the Civic hall where we would be spending the remains of the day until after the concert was over. The day was based around a series of workshops lead by the 2 tutors and other professionals from the business, intended to develop our understanding of folk music’s place within the music industry and widen our skills as performers and musicians. Our first workshop, lead by Joe heap of MCM, was on the topic of stage craft, which involved us actively taking part in examples of the ways in which we can control our nerves and use our adrenaline to give us confidence and a comfortable stage presence. Damien then went on to share some of the secret behind compiling effective set lists and spoke from experience as he gave an insight into how to go about getting the gigs and festival spots we wish for. Tom McConville is probably one of, if not, the nicest person you ever could meet and made, not only Mike and I, but the whole group aware of the positives of linking playing music to posture by means of the Alexander Technique: the theme of another of our workshops. After a brief final lesson on the laws within the music industry and the payments we are entitled to, Jaywalkers had their sound check for the evening’s performance. Complete with professional lighting checks and general sound perfecting, we couldn’t have been in safer and more genuinely caring hands for the concert to come that evening.

The concert! Beginning at 7:30pm precisely, Jaywalkers were on first and despite the reputation of being the hardest spot in the running order, we were pleased that we could perform and then enjoy the rest of the show in its entirety. Our set was decided around the 8 minute time limit and began with an original arrangement of the traditional tune “Banish Misfortune”. The rest of our set consisted of a compiled song (Four Blue Walls) and tune (Toss the Feathers) which included a rather risky instrument swap for me from guitar to fiddle. Feeling we had played the best we could, Mike and I returned to our seats to watch our friends from the other 11 acts that we had made over the course of the weekend. Even with such a wide spectrum of styles being played within the folk bracket, the concert really was something to remember, with every performance so supported by the other semi finalists that it felt like anything but a competition.

After a late night of takeaways and music and a morning of a 7:00 fire alarm (not very well received), final sessions, and goodbyes, we travelled home in a tired but cheerful state after such a fantastic weekend. Monday came as the bearer of good news as Jaywalkers received notice that the judges of Saturday’s panel had selected them to go on to the finals held in London on the 5th of December along with 5 other acts from the weekend. We would like to take this opportunity to thank all of our friends from Helsby for the support they have given us over the duration of this competition and the months before it.

Review: Punch Brothers – Punch

Punch Brothers, formerly the Tensions Mountain Boys, formerly the How to Grow a Band, release their debut album this month. Actually, it’s their second album.

As you can see, this band is nothing if not confusing, and it doesn’t get any clearer when you hear their music. This CD, Punch, is a collection of four tracks bundled together with the 42-minute long suite The Blind Leaving the Blind. It’s bluegrass, jazz, classical and more and it certainly takes some listening.

The band is the latest project from mandolin master Chris Thile who is joined by fellow world-class musicians Noam Pikelny (banjo), Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Chris Eldridge (guitar) and Greg Garrison (bass). The group recorded and released How to Grow a Woman from the Ground back in 2006, though the work was credited to Thile. It was his fifth solo album but the first hint that he was ready to move on from Nickel Creek, the band he had been part of since childhood.

Thile is definitely making a clean break from Nickel Creek. Although experimental at times, they were very much a verse-chorus-verse kind of band and Punch Brothers are venturing out into new, unchartered territory. It is something that Thile is more than pleased about, saying “I can’t imagine being more excited about a project than I am about Punch Brothers. The possibilities are endless with these guys!”

The thing that really separates this band from Thile’s previous work is that it truly is a band. Anybody who saw Nickel Creek live would have got the sense of it being “The Chris Thile Show” with support from the Watkins siblings. But here, with a group of musicians that could all be called virtuosos in their own right, Thile cannot steal the limelight. Punch Brothers are a cohesive unit with no one musician standing above the others. Thile cannot even claim front man rights now, as Noam Pikelny shares these duties (in a hilarious, if somewhat bizarre, dry-witted way) during live shows.

So what of the music? Well, don’t worry if you can’t absorb it on first listen. The four movements of The Blind Leaving The Blind are the main focus of the album and offer a layered, complex and often confusing musical journey. Multiple time and key signatures, varying tempos and volumes and sudden changes in melody mean that even after five or six listens you’ll still think you’re never going to get it. But as it starts to sink in, it also starts to make sense. Each of the movements has a strong, individual theme and whilst the music may seem to wander from time to time, the musicians and their instruments have a well-defined role throughout the piece. As Thile explains, “I had this idea of a long-form composition that was grounded in folk music. Though much of it reads like a string quintet, there are parts that read like a jazz lead sheet. There is plenty of improvising and lots of stuff that is loosely dictated.”

The rest of the recording is comprised of four tracks co-written by all the band members. They may be shorter and more conventional than the record’s centre-piece, but if you think they might be easier to digest, think again. Sometimes is a twisty instrumental that follows TBLTB and it is easily mistaken for the composition’s fifth movement. The opening track Punchbowl is just as intricate, with a melody that almost sounds out of tune and a structure that doesn’t follow any rules. Those who loved The Beekeeper and Watch ‘at Breakdown on the last CD will lap this stuff up.

Getting to know and understand this recording is hard work, but it is more than worth the effort. If Punch gets the success and following it deserves, it could easily become a landmark moment in the continuing evolution of bluegrass and new acoustic music.

The only question is, what on earth are Punch Brothers going to do next?

Further information

For more info about Punch Brothers, visit their official website. To find out how the band came together read our interview with Noam Pikelny.