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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Exploring The Spirit Of Bluegrass - The Porchlight Sessions

Abigail Washburn in The Porchlight Sessions
Roots and folk music seem to have gone through a few different cycles of cultural relevance over the years.  The first major boom, of course, was the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s, which helped to establish or reinforce the careers of bluegrass legends like Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, Flatt & Scruggs, and others.  Many years later, in 2000, the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, O Brother Where Art Thou? helped to rekindle the dying embers of folk, roots, and bluegrass music in the larger cultural furnace.  Now, ten years after O Brother, it seems we are in the midst of another resurgence of interest in folk, roots, and bluegrass music.  This resurgence is evident in the careers of a number of younger musicians who wear these influences on their sleeves while playing sold out arenas.  I’m thinking of artists such as The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and the Civil Wars to name but a few.  Recently we have seen high profile film and video projects including Give Me The Banjo on PBS, and now there is even a big Hollywood biopic of Bill Monroe currently in the works.  We can add to that list another film project that seems to be incredibly ambitious but also deeply heartfelt.  It is called The Porchlight Sessions and is currently in process of being completed.  The film is a documentary that explores the history, evolution, and beauty of bluegrass music and the culture that surrounds it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Matt Flinner Trio - Handmade Virtuosity (Show Review)


The term “roots musician” tends to make me think of a stripped down artist, taking inspiration from American folk and traditional forms to make personal music of a rough-hewn nature.  The visual equivalent would be an old-school letterpress print or maybe the canvas of an inspired folk painter. Matt Flinner is a roots musician, but one cut from a different cloth.  Flinner is more like a master draftsman creating exquisite etchings full of rich detail with hidden vignettes of cross-hatched abstraction that come together to form a beautiful image of compelling complexity.  Despite his erudite virtuosity, you can still see the artist’s hand in his work.  While “rough-hewn” would not be the proper expression to describe his artistry, “hand made,” with all of the charm and earthiness that implies, is an undeniable characteristic of the music.  It is elegant but raw, complex but accessible.  I had the pleasure of seeing him at Nashville’s historic Station Inn several days ago in support of his trio’s newest album, Winter Harvest (Compass Records.)   The performance was a tour de force of inspired acoustic roots music.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Q&A with Noam Pikelny, Part II

This is the second installment of a two-part interview I conducted with Noam Pikelny.  Pikelny, most famous for his work with acoustic supergroup, Punch Brothers, has just released his second solo album, Beat The Devil and Carry a Rail.  He is also the first recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.

You can read the first installment of the interview by clicking here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Q&A with Noam Pikelny, Part I

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Noam Pikelny, one of today’s most prolific and innovative banjo players.  Pikelny is best known for his work with acoustic supergroup, Punch Brothers, but he is now releasing his second solo album, Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail, which is certainly worthy of wide attention on its own.  Pikelny is also the first recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass (which came with a generous $50,000 cash award.)

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Kids are Alright: Trampled By Turtles at Nashville's Exit/In (10/18/11)

I arrived at Nashville’s historic Exit/In about 20 minutes before Trampled By Turtles embarked on an inspired set last week.  The crowd was decidedly young (at least in the eyes of this blogger rapidly approaching middle age.)   Comprised of fleece-wearing frat boys, scruffy pot devotees, and hipsters working overtime to groom an heir of shaggy bohemian intellectualism, the audience was out in force and ready for a good time.  I had forgotten how much outward social performance is a part of being young, and that quality inspired feelings of nostalgia, charm, and a bit of melancholy as I watched folks mingle, posture, shout, and squeal.  Despite being a talented, thoughtful band with a strong sense of songcraft, TBT strike me as a roots band tailor made for young adults given their energy and vitality.  And that’s a damn good thing for the longevity of meaningful roots music.  

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Review: Bela Fleck's Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing Bela Fleck’s Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra with the Nashville Symphony. Overall, the largest impression I was left with is that Bela Fleck is a raging, benevolent maniac. His virtuosity as a banjo player is unrivaled, and the concerto allowed an opportunity to showcase his abilities within a symphonic world of his own creation. The piece was a tour de force of musical intelligence, wit, and restless creativity. Of course, these are the impressions of a roots music blogger with a limited knowledge of traditional classical music. However, this piece of music was penned by an artist whose background includes an obsessive emersion in roots music from across the globe (not to mention his study of more formal music genres.) The diversity of Fleck’s career was on full display within the concerto, which swung wildly but gracefully between his vast influences. The composer says the piece was intended to “explore the new possibilities of the banjo as a member of the orchestra, while respecting its roots in bluegrass and jazz.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Album Review: Tune-Yards, "WHOKILL"

Ok, I'm pretty damn late to the Tune-Yards party (and, sorry, I refuse to use the tUnE-yArDs typography preferred by Merrill Garbus, the creative force behind the project.) As a somewhat insular roots music fan, I don't spend a lot of time searching out indie rock, experimental bands, etc.  In fact, my first very brief listen to Tune-Yards when their most recent album, WHOKILL, dropped this past April was a very cursory, quickly dismissive listen. Lucky for me, I happened to catch an interview and in-studio performance with Garbus on WBEZ's Sound Opinions this past weekend. I was immediately charmed by Garbus and loved hearing her approach to music; her reverence for African music, passion about its influence on the music of Appalachia, and her down to earth modesty. I was also charmed by the very DIY approach Garbus takes with respect to her music and live performances; an approach that embraces chance and mistake. Despite the fact that Tune-Yards is a band casually dependent on technology, influenced by hip-hop, electronica, and other dance musics (among many others), at its heart this is folk music, albeit a 21st century version thereof.