Slocan Ramblers, Coffee Creek

Slocan Ramblers, Coffee Creek

The Slocan Ramblers are a top-notch bluegrass quartet from, of all places, Toronto. They play and sing bluegrass and bluegrass-influenced acoustic country music with a great sense of fun but without a lick of irony or archness in sight. I was sold on Slocan Ramblers right away by their rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures Of Plenty,” paired with the straight bluegrass song “Honey Babe” (with a brilliant transition between the two), penned by the Ramblers’ lead vocalist and banjo player Frank Evans. His husky, dirt-honest voice delivers Guthrie’s ode to migrant farm workers in a totally straightforward manner that sells the song completely.

The publicity for Slocan Ramblers says the band stays true to the roots of the music, and if by that they mean they focus on the song and do it justice rather than just trying to play it as fast as possible, then yes. That doesn’t mean they don’t push themselves to their limits. You can hear it in Adrian Gross’s dissonant, in-your-face mandolin solo on “Groundhog,” which somehow incorporates both jazz and rock ‘n’ roll in structure and attitude. And it’s also isn’t to say they’re not capable of fast picking and singing. Witness the closer, the lightning-paced, bluesy Delmore Brothers “Mississippi Shore,” sung by Evans, and the fast-stepping bluegrass workout “The Back 40” by guitarist Darryl Poulsen, who leads the way with impressive flat-picking.

The program on Coffee Creek is an excellent blend of originals, traditionals and covers. The originals include several instrumentals by Gross, including the excellent “Galilee” and particularly “Lone Pine.” Pay particular attention on the latter to Alistair Whitehead’s solid and creative bass line; the ghost of Junior Huskey is smiling, I think! Whitehead also wrote two of the songs and sings one of them, the pastoral ode to Canada’s back country “Elk River.” The sharper of the two is “Angeline,” a pensive, nostalgic song delivered by Evans; here’s a superb performance video of it.

I’ve mentioned several of the covers already, but don’t miss their rendition of Roy Acuff’s “Streamline Cannonball,” sung by Whitehead with Evans on harmonies, with some mighty fine picking by everybody, particularly the mandolin intro and the guitar on the first break. It’s all recorded with attention to dynamics by Chris Coole, who wrote the fine liner notes. All in all, I’d say bluegrass is in good hands.

(Ontario Arts Council, 2015)

The Slocan Ramblers have a website.

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