Color Trio Image / Photo: Bob Doda - SASWP // Color – Couch / Photo: Rob Doda
I was recently offered the opportunity to listen to two extremely interesting albums both released at the same time, yet separately, though probably as a double-album at some point — I am not certain. I’ve always thought this type of release was a tad on the gimmicky side. Tom Waits did it with Alice, and Blood Money, and it somewhat worked. Guns ‘n Roses did it with two Use Your Illusion albums and those could have made for a great single album. Bruce Springsteen released Human Touch and Lucky Town, separately, and they worked somewhat. I can hardly remember any memorable songs from either album, but that’s me.
The Andrew Collins Trio – a Canadian award-winning trio, 5-time JUNO nominee and 7-time Canadian Folk Music Award Winners — begins its two-album release with the green colored Tongue, 11-tracks at 38-minutes and primarily cover songs with some originals. The deep orange colored Groove, with 11-separate tracks, are heavier on originals by Andrew Collins — but instrumentals.
Issues? A few, but for the whole, I must admit the performance value is high throughout. The musicians are all proficient and the sound is well recorded. I just find it hard to pigeonhole. What are they? They have artwork on two CDs that resemble a jazz outfit, a band name that suggests the same. So, from a marketing point of view, they must be jazz. Wrong. There’s bluegrass in there and some novelty songs. I am puzzled.
Nevertheless, the first track of Tongue, is a guitar energized Nick Drake tune “Cello Song,” with a master of the mandolin — Andrew Collins’ vocals, mandocello, and featuring Mike Mezzatesta on octave violin and James McCeleney on additional vocals and upright bass. Judging from their cover of this classic Drake song the Andrew Collins Trio should concentrate more on covering Drake tunes or some songs in that genre. They do get out of the starting gate — fast. They do play the hell out of this song and the vocals, while not reminiscent whatsoever of Nick Drake, are compelling and have a darkness with a vein of warmth not found in Drake’s own melancholic laid-back performance. I like this introduction, but this is where the road takes a sharp detour.
The Tom Parker composition “I Drink Whiskey (My Gal Drinks Wine)” – is a step forward for lovers who enjoy novelty-oriented folk-bluegrass type songs. But if you’re a Nick Drake aficionado this would be your moment to go to the john or get something to drink. Andrew takes the lead vocals on this and the playing is indeed proficient on this tune as well. But it’s light years away from the first song. Solution? Focus better on your repertoire overall or place a song like this track away from “Cello Song.”
Back on track with twin fiddles so to speak is an original “Black Veil,” that is another stab at folk-bluegrass but much closer to a Nick Drake in tradition and it comes off successfully. Andrew’s vocals and violin are precise, Mike’s octave violin and the upright bass of James all add up to a wall of compelling sound. Now, there is a classic song called “Long Black Veil,” and that’s a little too close for comfort to this similar sounding tune.
The next track is an ancient Irving Caesar swing song “Just a Giglio,” and though it’s laid back and has some nice guitar and upright bass plucking — the song is done simply as a light-hearted romp and not to be taken seriously. Andrew Collins’ vocals are reliably old fashioned and far better, wiser and truer than David Lee Roth’s attempt. The attraction here is their re-arrangement into a finely tuned bluegrass workmanship and that’s to be admired. Bluegrass purists will probably pass.
“Coming into Hard Time Blues,” continues miles away from where we started when Nick Drake was the song. This is more light-hearted as stated earlier, the performance is good, but the sound is old-fashioned, features an excellent upright bass run. There is nothing to recommend it outside of the fact that it proves good musicians can summon up the past on a song that has no dust on it. It certainly sounds like it was written 65 years ago.
“The Hat,” a novelty-humorful Roger Miller cover that’s attractive and played with a wink and a grin of the old English band Stackridge. Years ago, they referred to hats as lids and that’s the opening lyric. Still, in an old-fashioned barbershop quartet vocal style the Andrew Collins Trio do it stylishly and that’s all that matters. As the song ends, they start the intense ballad “Nothing but Us,” and the trio is back in a more serious mode. This is a beautiful tune.
Excellent sounding mandolin, guitar, and upright bass. There are no drums to pound the meat out of the songs – and the lyrics are sung with lots of feeling and oomph – as they used to say. Very listenable. This is second only to Drake’s “Cello Song.” More of these types of songs and the trio would have lots of sustainability.
The old Graham Nash song “King Midas In Reverse,” continues with some choice cover selections. Applying more unorthodox instruments to an old rock song is interesting. Considering that Nash’s old group The Hollies had originally recorded this and now it sounds more in keeping with English bands such as Lindisfarne, Horslips, Amazing Blondel and Magna Carta (the folk group). It exemplifies how adaptable an old tune is. The Andrew Collins Trio does a fine job on this dusty relic. Refreshing it again in 2018.
An old honky-tonk Ray Price-Rusty Gabbard song follows, and the trio stretches a little into a bluegrass-country genre again on “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me),” and this is one of the more energetic tunes on this Tongue collection.
James McCeleney takes the lead vocals and plays the upright bass. Mandolin and guitar dominate. The trio sings like old Everly Brothers and it’s not as weak as you might suspect. I found it quite good. When they sing together in this manner there is a refined authentic hat tip to another era and it’s entertaining.
Miles and miles away from Nick Drake now – this is a more bluegrass traditional duet in “Katy Dear.” Is it bad? No. It’s performed very well. It’s just not the same group who started off with “Cello Song.” It’s almost as if the trio has the ability to morph from dark and mysterious to upbeat bluegrass from the 1930s. Let’s face it Nick Drake might not be the ideal artist to share a stage with Bill Monroe – not in any comfortable manner. Not because they wouldn’t respect each other’s gifts. It’s just two different, distinctive worlds of music. The bluegrass people will skip over such songs, and the Drake enthusiast will focus only on two songs – Drake’s and “Nothing but Us” and then move on. I just don’t believe music fans are patient enough to learn the lesson I believe the Andrew Collins Trio is trying to teach here.
The closing out Roger Miller track has nice guitar work and is exceptionally recorded.
“Leaving’s Not the Only Way to Go,” is the typical Miller wordplay. When I was young, I thought it was so clever when Roger wrote a song called “The Last Word in Lonesome is Me.” Wow, that was impressive if you were observant. This track is good, a lot like Foster-Lloyd, Lowen & Navarro, and Prairie Oyster in tradition.
The second album Groove continues in this tradition with more originals than covers. It also features the same musicians and technical people. This album opens with precision mandolin notes on “Famous Last Words,” a jazz-influenced instrumental written by Andrew. Deep bellowing upright bass is evident and the jazzy mandolin notes are strange, but it all works well in a jazz style. Mike’s guitar is superb in this setting.
From jazz straight into a skillet of instrumental bluegrass on mandolin shows style and the musicians are all adept at their stations. It may be a trio, but they certainly get a hefty healthy wall of sound from their instruments. It’s all in a Bela Fleck, Ricky Skaggs pie but there seems to be more crust. And that can be good for the picky eater. It has that deep bottom of the upright bass and the jazz overtones glide just over the bluegrass notes. An excellent attempt from “Big Toaster,” and quite interesting.
Not to be outdone, “The Grumpus,” comes on dark, mysterious and with a pinch of Henry Mancini menace in the chart. This could be the soundtrack of a Coen Brothers film. I like this. I like that they challenge themselves. The mandocello is like bees around the honey of the upright bass and the mandolin is like a wind high in the trees. It’s a compelling instrumental.
While some tunes seem to be improvised the musicians are proficient in what they intend to produce. There is no tinkering so much as workouts on tempos, melodies, jams they have worked out in their heads and offered to one another to spice up. “Badabada Ba Ba,” is typical 50’s bebop but what’s gorgeous is the sound – because it does sound like there are more than three people playing. And despite the insistence of jazz, the unorthodox instruments produce what is needed. I wonder what Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong or Charley Parker may have thought? Ok, it doesn’t have that grit of the saxophone and trumpet, but the sound does travel, it’s unimpeded and it has a polish to it.
This is where creativity meets head-on with traditional. A Pink Floyd melody in “Goodbye Blue Sky,” weaved tightly into a traditional “Ship in the Clouds.” This is the kind of music I enjoy listening to just to experience how the musicians navigate the waters. It’s like the first time you eat a piece of sweet chocolate followed by a salty potato chip. You’d think it would be nasty but it’s actually…flavorful.
If all the past jazz musicians were able to live to 200 and they met the likes of Pink Floyd and its musicians, it’s a given that some of their melodies would find their ways into jazz classic repertoires. The same way some Broadway songs did, pop melodies, and show tunes. Let’s face it, “Rhapsody In Blue,” “My Favorite Things,” “Last Train to Clarksville,” — not written as jazz songs either. Excellent. At nearly five solid minutes, The Andrew Collins Trio should do more of this cross-breeding, more of this hybrid style because music is after all universal and much of it can be sewn together…if it’s done right. This one is a keeper.
So, with this track 6 we knead the dough of ethereal jazz and add some bluegrass sweetener and come up with “Lullaby for Len,” and the mandolin, bass (real nice runs) and guitar just create an atmosphere that motivates the senses and if you close your eyes, conjures. Conjures whatever you’d like to stimulate your mind with.
Maintaining their footing in traditional soil the trio takes the “Long Dusty Road,” into a fiddle extravaganza complete with mandolin and upright bass. The diversity in this trio is quite accomplished. You’d think it’s the wrong musical road to take — the mashing up of too many styles and genres and you would be right. But this trio has studied their subjects and they are well-rehearsed and obviously enjoy what they do.
It’s obvious by this time that the late Jerry Garcia would have loved to have played with this trio – even for the fun of it. Their ability to improvise and mix the brew is wonderful. As much as I like instrumentals the trio does need one signature vocalist to really set them apart from the myriad of bluegrass, trios, and instrumentalists throughout North America. I used to enjoy the interplay with the musicians from the old groups Sea Train, Hot Tuna, Little Feat, The Fifth Avenue Band, The Flock, and Goose Creek Symphony. Now, I have to look for groups like this.
Andrew plays the bellowing octave violin on “Kentakaya Waltz,” and with assistance from James and Mike the song takes on an other-worldly charm. The concluding track on this 43-minute LP is a David Grisman cover “Dawg Grass,” and with dual mandolins, it raises the musical color quotient. James’ bass lays down a groove foundation and the clarity on this track is like they’re in your living room.
Both albums were produced by Andrew Collins and the CD artwork was designed by Michael Hepher at Clawhammer Press.
Band Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TheAndrewCollinsTrio/
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review/commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as a reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / December 2018