If you haven’t yet noticed, there’s a new brand of bluegrass/string band out there, one whose members weren’t raised down in the holler or even high on the ridge. They may have been born in Massachusetts, even Newtown, Massachusetts, and they may have learned to stroke the fiddle strings not at barn dances or under Uncle Oswald’s knee but in Suzuki classes and, when they were grown,the Berklee School of Music. Their taste in clothing and their brand of stage banter may be more suggestive of Portland, Oregon or Austin TX, than say, the Grand Old Opry. That is, unless they’re getting up some country camp with an early Kitty Wells theme.
Where do bands like this center their creative juices? They’re not Bill Monroe or Bob Stanley and from their perspective, even the Dillards look like old time country boys. They’ve heard and absorbed everything from the Beatles and Bartok, to hard bop and Bela Fleck. They are unabashedly ECLECTIC, a nasty quality in some conservative circles, one that can lead to watered down diffusion, lack of focus, and loss of that most slippery of aesthetic virtues, authenticity.
Let me say then, that the Lonely Heartstring Band, creators of the recently released “Deep Water” on Rounder Records, is an authentically eclectic, quasi-bluegrass string quintet. The tunes on this, their first full length album, range from Paul Simon’s complex, Afro-pop influenced “Graceland,” to a rollicking banjo-driven instrumental, “Big Bruce,” drawn up by banjoist Gabe Hirshfeld. The majority of original songs on the album were composed by guitarist/lead singer George Clement, with occasional help from fiddler Patrick M’Gonigle. These usually romantic numbers (“Sophia” is a good example) are excellent vehicles for Clement’s plaintive tenor voice, often supported by the silky harmonies of his band-mates.
The quintet first came together at Berklee when they answered the call for a bluegrass band that could play a set of Beatles’ tunes for a wedding. Thus, they are no strangers to musical progressions that stray far from the time-honored 1-4-5. Clement’s identical twin, Charles, plays standup bass, with M’Gonigle on the fiddle, boyish Matt Witler on mandolin, and the stoically deadpan Hirshfeld on five string banjo. The instrumental interplay is complex but not over-crowded, a difficult task when considering the intricate rhythms and sinuous Afro pop hooks of Simon’s classic. They also do a bang up job of reviving Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer,” playing it sweet and slow with a passing nod to the harmonies of PP&M. I could say they cover these songs, but I hate the term, which conjures up memories of Pat Boone pouring white sauce over a Little Richard vamp. If every interpretation was a “cover,” I guess Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong would’ve been third rate hacks.
I would suggest you purchase this CD if you’re at all interested in the ongoing youthful revival of string band music. Some of you know you’ll like it; others may be surprised at just how contemporary you can be. Better still, come see this massively entertaining and skillful group of musicians at the Unitarian Fellowship on October 22. You’ll never get closer to the music!