You may know that I’m kind of obsessed with string metaphors. I have a 10-year-old (poorly maintained) blog called String Theory and a live show by the same name. My Sunday talk show on WMOT just had to be called The String because it just wouldn’t let me call it anything else. From the cosmic theory that all matter is made of subatomic vibrating strings to the ties that bind us and the threads that run through history, I can’t find anything that’s not part of a string. And of course our American music cosmos wouldn’t be what it is without a whole lot of taught parallel wires on acoustic instruments. You might say it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that string.
With The Lonely Heartstring Band, we’ll be experiencing one of the most dynamic and important young groups in bluegrass music, but there’s also a country band with a string-bending steel guitar, a star of six-string electric guitar and a string band from New York state that refuses to pluck and bow their strings like anyone else. Let’s see what’s in store, in order.
The only returning Roots artist this week is Austin star Carolyn Wonderland. She is beloved in her music city and here you’d have to pull together the guitar skills of a Kenny Vaughan and the vocal intensity of a Jonell Mosser to get an equivalent in ours. She’s won a bunch of awards, but the real affirmation came when Ray Benson of Asleep At The Wheel made Wonderland a charter artist on his Bismeaux Records label. On her last visit in 2015 I noted that her gentleness off stage was belied by her fire on it. I reviewed: “Her smoky voice started measured and confined but then cranked up to a sudden money note that let everyone know to buckle up for the roadhouse set to come. A couple of her tunes rocked pretty hard over Zep-like blues riffs, but she was always able to keep her vocals dynamic and controlled and colorful. Maybe the highlight was how she maintained a blues chant while she switched from guitar to lap steel, as if to keep the radio audience in the zone. Then she just tore it up with a glass slide on that devilishly simple but infinitely expressive instrument.”
They wield a banjo, fiddle and upright bass but don’t imagine Driftwood won’t rock your bluegrass loving face off or pulse like a 45 RPM single from 1961. The upstate New York band has been daring their instruments and voices to do ever-bolder, ever-fresher things since forming in 2005. The quartet features three different lead voices, but I’m sure the guys won’t object if I point out that Claire Byrne is an especially forceful and supple singer who can surge from folk simplicity to R&B belting on a moment’s notice. The tunes are well constructed and suited for dancing or listening. Their Live At Grassroots album from 2013 displays the group building an experience that’s far beyond merely performing the songs. New in their world is the album City Lights from 2016. They report it was their most focused and prolonged experience creating in the studio rather than bringing their road-proven songs before the mics. And it shows. Brilliant stuff on tap here.
The Lonely Heartstring Band is nestled in here mid-show, but this is an explosive breakout band that’s defining the next wave in bluegrass. Nobody gets signed for a debut album by the iconic Rounder Records in these lean times, but the LHB did. Yet not one member looks to be even 30 years old. Formed in 2012 as one of the most potent combos in the historically vibrant and fertile Berklee College of Music scene in Boston, they’ve found the sweet spot between their genre’s legacy and today’s musical melting pot, very much as the Seldom Scene did in its day. George Clements is the chief songwriter and vocalist and while we see some great bands that have multiple muses, it’s I think the continuity of vision and vocal style here is a strength. The debut album Deep Water has an immense amount to offer, with surprising surges of sound and harmonic concepts woven seamlessly into the grounded bluegrass soul that keeps us hooked for life. They won an IBMA Momentum Award in 2015. And that’s the word. They’ve got mass and velocity and it’ll hit y’all when they reach the stage.
Our show closers Western Centuries are a quantum experiment. You can’t tell what they are by direct observation. They’re always in flux. Are they a western cowboy band? Yes and no. A country rock outfit? Sure, but not like The Byrds. Honky tonkers? Sometimes, to a point. With three lead singers and five proven veterans of their instruments in various roots music contexts, this Seattle based outfit represents the best of the northwest, a scene we get too little of out here in mid-Americana. There’s an originality here that’s elusive. I like their own take on the debut album Weight of the World from the band bio: “The progressive, almost psychedelic nature of the album’s lyrics infuses the 12-track record with a distinctly modern sensibility. Sure, there’s ample pedal steel and plenty of country telecaster twang, but Western Centuries elevate these neo-traditional two-stepping tunes into transcendental, rootsy rock ‘n roll doused think-pieces.” Americana song as think piece. I like that.
So once again, I’d say our booking cabal has delivered the range, quality and forward pointing originality that epitomizes today’s roots music. An amazing deal for ten bucks, no strings attached.