Old School Freight Train – Gone to the dog
Judging Old School Freight Train by their name is a bit hazardous. Clubs have booked them anticipating a hip-hop band; old-time music heads might expect a rough and roaring take on blues and fiddle tunes. Instead, this quintet comes on as unhurried, smartly groomed, and as eclectic as an upscale dinner train to Manhattan.
The band was started in Williamsburg, Virginia, by three college friends — Pete Frostic (mandolin and mandocello), Jesse Harper (lead vocals, guitar and percussion), and Ben Krakauer (banjo) — and solidified with the addition of bassist Darrell Muller and fiddler Nate Leath. Its members are young, ranging in age between 21 and 28; a sense of self-discovery and self-definition predominates Run, their new album on David Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label. The band gives the open-ended, improvisational Dawg music of Grisman (who also produced the disc) a contemporary soul feel, owing in large part to Harper’s smooth, uptown vocals and a supple but energetic rhythm section.
“We were a lot more bluegrassy,” Frostic says of the band’s earliest efforts. “We hadn’t realized what we were supposed to sound like yet. I laugh now, because there are only two songs from our first album that I could play now. We just couldn’t pull that off. We didn’t sound like we were from Kentucky. We were just imitating bluegrass and we couldn’t cover up who we were. You take our first record, compared to a real bluegrass band, and we’d get blown out of the water.”
Cut live over the course of three days, Run moves between sometimes playful, sometimes sober originals and graceful Celtic-or-Latin-flavored instrumentals (one of which stretches to nearly eight minutes). “I had some anxieties about the record,” Frostic says. “It’s not perfect; there are mistakes all over it. But that’s the way it feels; that’s how we sound when we play. That rough edge is something David wanted to incorporate — to just play and let it be.”
Two covers on Run, Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious” and Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” — which Harper sings as if strung out on morphine, in part because he was suffering from food poisoning and heavily medicated for the session — clarify that the band’s heart is not in bluegrass or old-time, but in pop music. That’s underscored by their participation in CMH Records’ Pickin’ On series of bluegrass instrumental tribute albums; they’ve worked on volumes dedicated to Wilco, Radiohead, Coldplay, Ben Harper, John Mayer, and Air.
Old School Freight Train has no true leader. Emphasizing ensemble arrangements onstage and on record, the band composes separately, though the wry fantasy “Drama Queen” on Run points toward a more demanding collaborative approach.
“Ben gave me a picture from The New Yorker,” Harper explains, “and said, ‘Write about this.’ That’s the only time I’ve ever done anything like that. When I write, I’m usually at home, and the music happens pretty easily, but the words are always the hard part. Maybe we should write together more, just as an exercise, but it takes a lot of patience.”
Before meeting Grisman, the band gigged around Williamsburg and Charlottesville, Virginia (which now serves as a home base), playing where and whenever they could. Harper and Krakauer put on Hawaiian shirts and played bluegrass as roving minstrels for tourists on Virginia Beach, and the group has somehow survived an absurd run of college bars and frat parties.
“Half the time,” Harper says, “I’d end up thinking, ‘I can’t believe we just played that gig,’ when the crowd is yelling, and you’re trying to do something with a lot going on, a lot of changes and dynamic shifts. We played a frat party once at Washington & Lee. The brothers came dressed as confederate soldiers, the girls were debutantes. They had a big pig roast, people screaming and running around, and then a mock civil war battle. Our fiddle player busted into ‘Dixie’, we made it through one chorus then threw our stuff in the van and got out.”
Through their association with Grisman — the band is touring this summer as his opener and backing group — they’ve left that grind behind. All five members teach music in the Charlottesville area, picking up the same mentoring role that Grisman has served to their own growth.
“Even as a mandolin player, I never felt I had to impress him,” Frostic says of Grisman. “It wasn’t like I was trying out for his team; he was on our team. He was definitely a huge influence, but by the time we recorded the album, I had figured out my own style. Sometimes I’d say, ‘Hey Dawg, what would you do on this song?’ and he’d always have something amazing to offer.”
“I was going to go to medical school until I heard Dawg ’90,” Harper says of Grisman’s Grammy-nominated 1990 disc. “Once you get past the nervousness, it’s just fun to play with him. Imagine you’re a kid who loves baseball and you get to play catch with Mickey Mantle.”