Review: Bees In The Barn

Bees in the Barn is an acoustic quartet based in Beacon, NY, consisting of nationally and internationally active and accomplished musicians working across numerous genres including musical theater, jazz, classical, international folk music, and progressive bluegrass. All these influences are apparent and melded into a dynamic, eclectic set of instrumental pieces that dance along the boundaries and definition of Bluegrass.

This debut album consists of eleven original instrumental compositions—“compositions” not “tunes” is the proper term for music with this level of complexity and intricacy. Yet the music is tuneful and compelling throughout. Intelligent without being cerebral, adventurous but not esoteric, Bees in the Barn cultivate the best tendencies of forward-thinking music. The individual virtuosity and bona fides of the members—August Eriksmoen (mandolin), Ryan Drickey (fiddle), Jordan Shapiro (guitar) and Nate Allen (bass)—are profoundly impressive, but the really striking effect is what they produce together. With just four traditional acoustic instruments Bees in the Barn generate incredibly rich textures. And without any apparent multi-tracking, this music has the clarity and spontaneity of live performance combined with the precision of carefully prepared composition and arrangement.

The title of the album’s opening track, “Fault Line,” suggests we will be crossing a divide. It begins with the pulse of a single repeated bass note—a driving rhythmic pedal tone. Everything builds out of this first principle, as the guitar next declares a crisp, rapid, almost traditional riff over it. This riff too, is repeated with some insistence, doubled by the mandolin, finally joined by fiddle until the music bursts forth from the constraints that have been implied and starts rolling down the road full force. This 4 ½ minute piece is a miniature suite, showcasing the individual talents of each instrumentalist in turn, as it pivots into a distinct interlude with a shift in mood and rhythmic texture before returning dramatically to the opening theme.

“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” is the second track, and the radio-spelling-alphabet letters of this witty title might represent the abbreviated reaction of any purist or tradition-bound bluegrass fan. But this elaborate, passionate Tango is very much in line with the progressive bluegrass of Sam Bush and especially David Grisman, and extended today by fellow mandolinist, Chris Thiele.  This is music that sounds local and listens globally—reflecting the broad appetite and appreciation among both performers and audiences for musical traditions beyond those of southern Appalachia. This piece is a real showcase for fiddler, Ryan Drickey, but it also highlights the coherence of the intricate style of Bees in the Barn. Like many other pieces on the album, this one displays all the benefits of composition and careful arrangement—masterful control of dynamics, orchestration, timbre, and atmosphere—nothing is left unattended or unconsidered. Precision and care is given to each moment. Yet the song has the tremendous drive, dynamism and excitement of extemporaneous improvisation. It’s a great accomplishment that the listener is hard-pressed to discern where intention leaves off and serendipity begins.

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“Chateau de Malt”

All the tracks share in these virtues while applying them in a fascinating variety of settings. Particular highlights include “Chateau de Malt” a waltz that is almost Viennese at moments yet would be at home on a soundtrack from an urbane French film of the 1960s. It evocatively paints a picture in sound: from the shy opening—a hesitant mandolin is drawn out and then swept off its feet by the rest of the band—to its charming, almost whimsical ending. “Boffo” by contrast, jumps right out and hits the ground running creating a groovy jam with its funky, driving rhythms. Again the music is vivid and evocative. It could be the soundtrack to a great animated suspense film—perhaps a Pixar title sequence?

This reviewer is partial to albums that close just as strong as they open. “Coming and Going” is a beautiful soothing epilogue: a grateful and wistful return home from the far-ranging explorations of the preceding album. The melody is so lovely and clearly stated that for the first time one wishes for lyrics and vocals. You find at the end that this album has taken you on a journey around the world across time and genres, everywhere, it would seem, except 20th century Appalachia—traditionally the touchstone and grounding point for all Bluegrass. But that you can have from most any band. This you will be hard pressed to find anyone else doing. This music is definitely on the vanguard of creativity and adventurousness in the world of Bluegrass. The musicianship is impeccable—individually and collectively. And it’s a thrill to listen as the soloists acrobatically navigate richly conceived harmonic and rhythmic terrain and emphatically stick the landing.

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