Abigail Washburn plays old timey banjo and sings. A lot of people can make that claim, however. What sets Abigail apart is that she can also sing in Chinese and her Sparrow Quartet has pioneered a complex but riveting musical crossover.
First, east meets west: Asian and Appalachian traditions combine with unexpected delight. Then there’s both kinds of banjo: Abby frails to Bela Fleck’s 3-finger resonator style. Add in a classical touch: Cello (Ben Sollee) and violin (Casey Driessen). Yet all players also improvise because they can play jazz. Finally, and this one is hard to explain, Sparrow’s songs often draw out divergent emotions simultaneously. Start with the albums final piece “Journey Home.” It is easy to feel happy and sad as you hear Washburn sing in words you don’t understand to the bands combination of styles and notes that you’ve never heard before.
This is one of those “Wow” albums. Their first release “The Sparrow Quartet EP,” was really good, but it was only a forecast of what was to come. This collection includes the band’s own compositions along with strikingly original arrangements of songs that may be centuries old. Three years ago Abby told me that she had assembled a band and had arranged a State Department tour in Tibet. When she told me who was in the band, I could only imagine what it might sound like. Now, you and I don’t have to imagine — this dream is real, and you’ll discover something else everytime you listen.
Who is Pat Wictor? I had no idea, but when a trusted aide insisted I listen, I remembered Folk Alley’s best trait: offering joy through discovery. Wictor’s songs are basically bluesy but he doesn’t use the same tired progressions. Some selections offer a fine compliment of instruments (lap slide, accordion, harmonica) while others are just Pat. “Just Pat” is plenty because this guy has a sweet voice and plenty of range, somewhat similar to Pat Enright of The Nashville Bluegrass Band (though “Sunset Waltz” isn’t bluegrass).
Wictor’s subject matter is smart. He sings of acceptance in “That’s the Way it’s Gonna Be.” He sings the perfect wedding song delivering Pierce Pettis’s “Song of Songs.” He is brutally honest revealing a father’s alcoholism in “Whiskey Vacation.” There’s an original Civil War ballad about a mother knitting socks for 7 dead sons – “Marching Still.” He pays respect by covering Dylan and Phil Ochs. He is amusing during “Existentialist Blues:” “Things ARE just as hard as they seem.” Pat is getting airplay on folk radio all over the country and you can add us to that list.
In various configurations, Northern Lights has been playing contemporary bluegrass for years in New England. Lead singer, Ben Demerath (Sugarbeat), joined them and the group seemed ready to take on more of a national identity. Folk Alley chose 7 songs off their last album “New Moon.” “One Day” is a step backward; we were disappointed not to find one song to add from it.
The biggest problem seems to be song selection, because these guys can obviously play. Out of all the Bob Wills numbers “Miss Molly” is too often the choice, and we have many versions already. There are hundreds of other Wills gems to choose from. Ditto “Working On a Building” and “Talk About Suffering.” These are overdone. The band’s three lead singers (with the exception of guest Jonathan Edwards) mostly under deliver and at times they try too hard. The lack of originality is most evident when it comes to composition. The band wrote none of their own songs and made no attempt to clarify that they were celebrating covers. There are plenty of other newer bands who are passing Northern Lights by, which is disappointing because they can do better.
Famed producer Lloyd Maines was in Boulder, Colorado and heard a group of women playing old timey music on the street. He like their energy; they became friends, and he produced their album. The album starts off farily ordinary – no stellar lead players or singers. Remember though, this is mountain music and the original purpose was not to impress – the idea was participation. You work all day, and then you play music on the porch. Or you dance. You don’t WATCH (as in TV or concerts). YOU play.
Understanding this philosophy, the album is fun. Further into the CD, it offers something else. Songwriting: “David & Goliath” is a biblical analogy for modern warfare. “Shuffle and Shine” laments the trials of the working individual. There is also Theatre:
“Stay All Night” begins with banjoist Evie Ladin solo tap dancing, then the band joins in.
To keep the tune interesting they add dynamic ensemble changes: starts & stops, that sort of thing. The song starts off interestingly and then it stays that way.
Not every submission to Folk Alley has to reach the standards of the Sparrow Quartet. The Stairwell Sisters have loads of fun and they care. Both show.