Review: Tony Trischka – Great Big World

1. Say Goodbye – Michael Dave and Chris Eldridge
2. Doe Re Me – Woody Guthrie
3. The Danny Thomas
4. Promontory Point
5. Single String Medley
6. Belated Weeding Hoedown/Angelina Baker
7. Ocracoke Lullabye
8. Great Big World/ Purple Trees of Colorado
9. Joy
10. I Wonder Where You Are Tonight
11. Lost
12. Wild Bill Hickok
13. Swag Bag Rag

If there was a one word summary to describe Tony Trischka’s new album, Great Big World it probably be ‘eclectic.’ Trischka’s world is a big one indeed, covering a wide range of musical styles and arrangements along with a who’s who of distinguished guest musicians. The album continually surprises in the manner in which the flow of musical ideas evolves over the course of the 13 tracks, sometimes organically and sometimes abruptly. Throughout the proceedings one familiar constant is Trischka’s own stellar musicianship, lending an air of authority and thoughtfulness over the unique amalgam found in the Great Big World.

The recording starts out at a promisingly brisk pace with one of the many Trischka originals, “Say Goodbye,” featuring the Punch Brother’s Chris Eldridge on guitar and lead vocals. Right off the bat, we’re given an insight into Trischka’s writing style that pays clear homage to tradition yet stretches the boundaries with some less traditional rhythms and vocal harmonies. The solo breaks are clean, strong and efficient and from this first track it already becomes evident that Trischka has brought in a crack crew of collaborators.

The second track goes deeper into traditional territory, this time with Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Me”, with guitarist Michael Daves taking the lead vocal turn.

After the more bluegrasss oriented opening of the first to tracks, Tricshka offers the first instrumental, an original called “The Danny Thomas.” This is one of the most memorable tunes on the recording, done in a sort of ‘chamber-grass’ ensemble style — multiple key shifts and rhythm changes yet manages to key a bouyant, rollicking tempo that is more than worthy of some down-home toe tapping.

“Promitory Point’ was co-written by Trischka and an upcoming banjo player named Steve Martin, who also duets with Trischka on the track. It’s a nice tune. And it’s Steve Martin, for cryin’ out loud! Who doesn’t like Steve? Tony even thanks him in the liber notes for ‘fashion consulting.’

The five part “Single String Melody” started from suggestions from Martin and fiddle player Brittany Haas that the melodies be performed on a single string. Trischka takes the idea to heart, creating a lovely suite of melodies that features each of the five strings of Tony’s banjo with accompaniment of fiddle, cello and guitar.

“Belated Wedding Hoedown/Angelina Baker” gets back into a bluegrass mood, but with a twist, this time pairing the soothing voice of Aoife O’Donovan with the gutsy growl of Michael Daves for the lyric of “Angelina Baker.”

The rest of the album stacks up one stylistic variation after the next. “Ocracoke Lullabye” a sweet and sublime tune that features Trischka’s banjo intertwining with the harp of Maeve Gilchrist and the cello work of Tristan Clarridge. Gilchrist sings the gentle lullabye.

By the time the title track, “Great Big World” rolls around, we start to feel a bit more in familiar bluegrass territory, but Trischka pulls the rug out again, taking the musicians through a series of tonal modulations interspersed with some fine guitar, mandolin (Mike Compton) and banjo solos (and yes, clarinet!) before gradually resolving into the swirling pulse of “Purple Trees of Colorado,” featuring Daves again on vocal and Noam Pikelny on banjo.

“Joy” is straight up church gospel with a full drum kit, strong back beat, and features the vocal of Catherine Russell and the soaring pedal steel work of Larry Campbell. The song stands out as quite a different production and style from the rest of the album, which is certainly saying something in an album filled with this much diversity. I’d like to hear more about how Trischka has been influenced by gospel and how this song came about.

“I Wonder Where You Are Tonight”

The Johnny Bond tune, “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” brings us back again into the more traditional bluegrass fold, then segues into the operatic chamber arrangement of “Lost” with its glockenspiel, clarinet, cello, fiddle, and banjo wrapping around the brief vocal flight of Abigail Washburn.

And at the end of a recording full of unexpected surprises, Tony Trishcka delivers one more, “Wild Bill Hickok,” an original tune and story that features not only the vocal of Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, but a spoken word soliloquy by actor John Goodman. Man, Trischka’s got some great friends helping him out here, and “Wild Bill Hickok” is one of “Great Big World’s” most enjoyable sing-along tunes.

For a suitable coda to such a tour de force, Trischka leaves us with a final offering on his double tracked banjo and cello banjo, “Swag Bag Rag.” The effect of the tune is like a step back in time, and Trischka has completed his exploration of the world’s music with us, with humor and wisdom, a wink and a nod of his cap to the pioneers before him.

Rounder Records

Max Maksimik

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