Except for a few college stations, an early morning public broadcast program or midnight shift disc jockey alone in a small radio station in Fargo, North Dakota, I’m somewhat still dismayed that much of what is released excellently by independent labels or ambitious artists have no viable broadcast outlet on a regular basis.
It’s true, sometimes a station like Sirius will play things that no one thought radio would even remember but that’s their charm — the deep cuts. But what about the new crop of deep cuts? You would have to subscribe I guess or tune into some stream on the internet from Finland. I’m talking about a full-fledged Americana-Folk/Rock-Heartland-Country/Rock-Roots-Outlaw type station that plays this music and talks about it the way urban stations display their rap-hip/hop and R&B music. The way the incredibly intense rock FM radio stations did back in the late 60’s early 70’s. No, I’m not suggesting the stations with the silky smooth, laid-back disc jockey voices. I’m just suggesting a disc jockey who can speak clearly and eloquently about the music and play it for people who either can’t find it, can’t afford it, or just like to listen. I certainly don’t hear it where I am.
Take for example the string band Hot Club Sandwich and their fifth album (that alone tells you something) — with fourteen delicious tracks on the 56 minute No Pressure. I’ll bet many Grateful Dead fans won’t even know it exists despite the appearance of mandolin great David Grisman who played many times with the late Jerry Garcia and played with Jerry in the bluegrass group Old and in the Way — appears on half of the tracks on this collection.
Is Hot Club Sandwich like the Grateful Dead? No. That’s not the point. It is indeed music that Jerry Garcia embraced and there are moments where you can hear where the Dead got their traction. If I was on the radio and played the Dead, Little Feat, Hot Tuna, the Fifth Avenue Band, Seatrain, Pure Prairie League and Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Jerry Garcia Band and slipped Hot Club Sandwich between them no one would notice but they would definitely groove to it. It fits. Now, tell me the listeners and admirers of all that music isn’t out there still in great numbers?
On the opening track with a dynamic stand-up bass that bellows throughout and surges in the sprightly instrumental “Swang Thing,” that features David Grisman on mandolin and is a wonderful introduction to a bluegrass band that is…fiery. On this track, it’s twin mandolins that are the glue and it’s the type of workout that is ideal for a jam. A gunfight jam of acoustic instruments with lots of melodic smoke.
Track two — a laid back vocal on the title track “No Pressure.” Songwriter Ray Wood has been around the barn a few times in his musical career but this is his first time as a lead vocalist. James Schneider’s bass is recorded excellently and the little solos taken throughout this tune are all relaxing. They go down like a cold glass of burgundy with lemon. Wood’s vocal is not earth-shaking or powerful but it is indeed appropriate for the type of song it is. This is perfect late night fodder on radio and though it has its roots in a much older musical genre I can hear The Grateful Dead perform this.
The retro guitar sound – no need for medication if you want to feel good — and this kind of music has its own medicinal magic. 75-year-old Ray’s warm vocal lends authenticity and his jazz guitar background digs deep and seems to wind around seamlessly. Tim’s violin and Matt’s mandolin keep this tune natural, with no sugar added. The song has more of an under the current jazz feel than a mountain folk song sound. This would work in a bluegrass club or even between sets by a small jazz combo. Amazing how some songs can sound old but project with no dust or rust on their respective notes.
With “New Gravy Waltz” David Grisman returns on mandolin to perform on the Ray Brown composition he recorded originally with The Oscar Peterson Trio in 1961. The lyrics, believe it or not, were written by composer/talk-show host Steve Allen – the original Tonight Show host. Allen recorded the song in 1963 himself. This is a wonderful little resurrection. The fine old fashioned vocals were laid down by drummer Joseph Mascorella.
Up next is a track “Winter Rain,” — that seems to be written and sung in the tradition of the legendary jazz writers-singers Lambert-Hendricks and Ross (“Twisted,” “Centerpiece”) – 1957-1964 and were covered by Joni Mitchell. It shuffles along nicely and drummer Mascorella sings the lead again with a credible soft touch mellow jazz vocalese. Not necessarily a lounge-lizard but a good solid performance.
“Melancholy April,” features Mr. Grisman again and the tune is a change of pace. Written by Kevin Conner the melody swings and to my ears has a pre-30’s Big Band tradition to it. It’s a driving dance tune with some excellent guitar. Matt Sircely and David Grisman play mandolins – not necessarily a big band type instrument but it works here. The shuffle and drummer keeps it anchored solidly in another decade with impeccable taste. The violin (Tim Wetmiller) is the highlighted instrument as it scurries along the tune and never becomes dull. There’s some nice Spanish guitar picking and the diversification of this unit of musicians is quite evident. At the risk of sounding like a contradiction — you could say it sounds old — but it doesn’t sound dated the way these men play it. Music can do that.
A classic Hoagy Carmichael is featured next with “Rockin’ Chair.” They blew the dust off this and found some gold – not iron. Guitarist Kevin Connor sings lead with a respective hat tip to another generation of musicians and songwriters. “Odaime,” is a sharp Peruvian waltz instrumental that date’s from 1912 – and this version combs many musical flavors between percussion, violin and all the featured stringed instruments. It’s as if, the instruments have replaced potential brass. This is fluid, accomplished and features some beautiful guitar work.
Big band style dominates “What a Pretty Miss,” with more strings than brass. Drummer Joseph Mascorella sings lead, Tim Wetmiller (violin) mixes it up with the mandolins. Vocally, this has a little of that typical big band 40’s Tex Beneke male vocalist approach. With “Palm Springs Jump,” the Slim Gaillard song about the California town is borderline barbershop quartet but the enthusiasm is excellent and the musicianship sharper than any banjo led trio with armbands, striped shirts, and handlebar moustaches. The band is tight.
More mandolins dominate “It Ain’t Right,” – and has the guitars and violin a little lower than the drums but it sounds retro-cool. Excellent little upright bass solo, the singers are invigorated and it comes close to being an orphan rock song because it strides fast, hot and swayful. Matt’s vocals with the great backup singers are wonderful and this song with its arrangement is the most exciting song on the collection. You don’t really have to be a fan of this type of music to appreciate this effort.
The classic traditional “St. James Infirmary,” features a twin mandolin introduction and Tracy Grisman on vocals. This is perhaps the most modern sounding track on the collection. Tracy possesses a warm folk voice with just a hint of blues that accentuates the sincerity in her rendition. Not overblown or melancholy. She sounds like a female inmate in the yard alone with a good voice singing to the residents like the beautiful Jan Clayton (the original mother on the TV show “Lassie”) when she sang Antonin Dvorak’s “Going Home,” to the asylum patients in the excellent film “The Snake Pit.” (Unfortunately many of the YouTube posts are inferior – if interested, you must see it as it appears in the film). One of the most stirring moments in a film as a woman sings to a crowd of committed people and they sing it back to her.
Tracy Grisman and the musicians perform with the same level of poignancy.
The collection was produced by David Grisman with Matt Sircely. The album design was by Nino Mascorella and the illustration by Tracy Grisman. The album was recorded live in a turn of the century bordello in Port Townsend, WA by Everett Moran.
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 / August 2018