The five members of Gravel Road, a youth bluegrass group “hailing from the Floyd/New River Valley area of Southwest Virginia,” look so young you’d expect to see them standing outside the middle school gym at a chaperoned dance. The anchors of the group seem to be guitarist/singer Nick Weitzenfeld, mandolinist/vocalist Addie Levy, and banjo player Adam Bishop. Bassist Jared Houseman and fiddler Lydia Bowman are newer to the game but already capable of holding up their share of the blend.
With a band name like The Flying Circus and the leaking of a rehearsal photo showing the musicians in costume, the HVBA audience at Trinity Church last Friday night (4/24) hardly knew what to expect. A motley (yet somehow polished) crew marched into the room from the rear. The audience gasped. I will “say no more” about their entrance.
If you weren’t there, you missed a stellar performance from four of the finest bluegrass musicians in this region. Fred Robbins was able to capture the whole business on video, with the enthusiastic consent of the band leader who calls himself Col. Buff Orpington (“Buff” to his closest friends). I have been threatened that I will never again be invited to a Circus rehearsal, so for the purposes of this review I must refer to the musicians by their stage names only. A clever reader will be able to piece the rest together by consulting Fred Robbins’ still photos published earlier this week.
It’s hard to be a Dailey and Vincent fan because they can be so unabashedly shameless. Where other bluegrass musicians grew up wanting to be like Bill, or Earl, or Doc, these guys grew up wanting to be the Statler Brothers. When I first saw them live I was turned off pretty much instantly by the pure geekiness and showiness of it all. On stage they are less people than they are Muppets.
Which is too bad, because they are truly great singers and can craft a song beautifully. They won me over when they released Brothers of the Highway in 2013. It’s a fantastic album, and it made me reconsider the one before it, Brothers from Different Mothers, which actually is pretty good too. When they came out with their tribute to the Statler Brothers I was enough of a fan to say, ok, that’s fine, it’s good for what it is.
If you need more evidence that Boston is one of the cutting edges of the new string band sound, you only need to drop Cold Chocolate's self-titled new album onto your choice of media player for confirmation. Billing themselves as a fusion of roots and bluegrass with a touch of funk, a couple of listens to the album finds the emphasis on old-time and even a touch of jazz to go along with some of the 'grass. "Roots" is indeed an apt description. If rock hadn't already grabbed "Americana" as a genre, I would surely have applied it for this band.
When I heard that Smithsonian Folkways was releasing a collection of classic American ballads, I was intrigued, maybe a bit excited, and also assumed that I would love it. Given that I’ve just said that, I guess it’s clear that the album is, at least in some ways, a disappointment.
The Smithsonian Folkways collection is vast in ways that we likely can’t even fathom. Its collections include, for example, all of the field recordings that John Lomax made beginning in 1907. Those recordings alone are astonishing, again in more ways than we can reasonably appreciate, though the collection also includes everything—the entire archive—of Moses Asch and Folkways records. Huge. And there’s lots more, too. If there is a Mount Rushmore of American song, the Smithsonian collection is it.