Review: The Foghorn Stringband – Devil In The Seat

One of the most exciting young bands today is the Foghorn Stringband, a quartet based in the Pacific northwest. They cover a lot of stylistic ground. Although most readily characterized as an “old time string band,” they draw the material on their latest recording, Devil In The Seat, from diverse sources. The “title” track (real name: “90 Miles An Hour”), from the classic country repertoire (Hank Snow), analogizes a cheating love affair to an out of control motorcycle driven by Old Scratch himself. The band includes more recognizably “old time” fiddle tunes such as “Stillhouse” and “Old Molly Hare” and old ballads such as “Henry Lee.” Also, there are songs familiar to bluegrassers, including “Columbus Stockade Blues,” “Pretty Polly,” and “John Hardy.” The band ties all these different tunes together with its own kinetic joy.

All four members have distinctive voices, whether picking or singing. Caleb Klauder plays mandolin, an instrument that usually takes a back seat in old time music (if heard at all), in a stye that shows a lot of Bill Monroe’s influence. But Caleb adds a lot of his own touches, with a powerful right hand and a rhythmic fiddle-style mandolin shuffle on the fast tunes (in place of a bluegrasser’s mandolin chop). Caleb also fiddles “Old Molly Hare,” with fiddler Sammy Lind picking the banjo on this number.

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“Henry Lee”

The grassiest sounding tune here is a lovely gospel duet, “Longing For A Home,” featuring Caleb and guitarist Rebecca (“Reeb”) Willms. Reeb’s guitar is solid and ringing and her timing is flawless. And she has a wonderful country voice, shown to great advantage in two duets with the other half of the rhythm section, bassist Nadine Landry, “Mining Camp Blues” and “What Will We Do?” The latter is very stark, with the two voices weaving in and out of unison and harmony. Reeb also sings an unusual murder ballad, “Henry Lee,” in which the girl kills the boy and throws his body down a well, all because he refused to spend the night with her. In one of those weird twists that only happen in old time songs, the murder is witnessed by a bird who threatens to tell on the killer. When she tries to entice the bird to light on her knee, he wisely refuses, telling her that a girl who would murder her true love “would kill a little bird like me.”

Nadine Landry’s bass is solid and transparent, never calling attention to itself, always appropriate. And her voice is perhaps the most distinctive in the band, especially on “90 Miles An Hour,” which she sings with great verve. Although she is not anyone’s clone, she calls to mind country legends like June Carter and Kitty Wells.

The fiddle is the king of old time music, and Sammy Lind demonstrates why here. I defy anyone hearing “Chicken Reel” not to leap up and dance. Sammy’s feel for the music is complete and his lively bowing contributes a large part of this band’s excitement. And he can handle a poignant air with great feeling, as shown in “Leland’s Waltz.” The band reveres the late fiddler and composer Garry Harrison, whose contemporary old time fiddle classics include “Jailbreak,” which Sammy showcases here.

The Foghorn Stringband is even more exciting in performance than on record, and they have a sense of humor, as the YouTube video for “Columbus Stockade Blues” demonstrates. The band is well represented online, and their many videos give a good sample of their live performances. Still, you should see them in person if you can. Although their shows in the northeast are rare, they were here in March and will be back in September for shows at the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival in Maine and locally at the Rosendale Café.

The Foghorn Stringband is steeped in the old time tradition, but more than this they are just plain fun and exciting to watch. Do yourself a big favor and get Devil In The Seat and catch them live when they next pass through town.

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