Music Review: Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile – The Goat Rodeo Sessions

Hi all!

Somewhere, the music gods are smiling over the holidays. The stars aligned and brought classical music together with Bluegrass, achieving some truly astounding results. But let me take a step back.

Yo-Yo Ma is a world-class cellist who has made a career not only out of gorgeous classical music, but for pushing boundaries and collaborating with musicians of any and all genre – from A Capella maestro Bobby McFerrin to one of the pre-eminent violinists of the last century Itzhak Perlman – not to mention working with orchestras around the world and helping out with music education efforts worldwide. Thankfully, the world has recognized his efforts and he’s been awarded multiple awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010, and serves as a UN Messenger of Peace and on the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities.

And now he can add a collaboration with Bluegrass artists Chris Thile (mandolin – member of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers), Edgar Meyer (bass), and Stuart Duncan (fiddle). The result is a collection of songs in The Goat Rodeo Sessions that not only debuted at #1 on the Bluegrass, Classical, and Classical Crossover Billboard charts, but has made it to #18 on the Billboard Top 200 and at #11 on Soundscan’s Digital Album Chart. And if all that attention isn’t enough to get you to listen this album, I encourage you to watch this video of their performance on The Colbert Report:

Though I’ve listened to my share of classical music over the years, one of my more recent discoveries has been the life and energy in Bluegrass music. Groups like Crooked Still and the Greencards have brought a new joy to my ears in recent years. So I think I was on a collision course with this album from the first time I heard the quartet play in the videos on Colbert.

What blows my mind is the control of these musicians and the dynamic passion that ebbs and flows through every note. Sure, there are some slower songs – but damn if these folks don’t fly across the strings. Chris Thile sums it up nicely – “The arrangements on the record are ‘like a reverse game of Jenga‘” he says, “trying to get all the players to land at the same place at the end of the songs.” It’s rare these days that I’ll find that a song is so quiet that I need to turn it up to hear the beginning, and yet with songs like “Here and Heaven,” I had to just that – and then to have it build to such a satisfying crescendo with the vocals and harmonies of Aoife O’Donovan and Thile… I literally am in heaven every time I hear it.

“Quarter Chicken Dark” has a groove that just sticks in my brain long after the song is done, forcing me to go back and listen to it again before too long. Meyer’s bass merged with Ma’s cello drives this song from the bottom up. And it’s one of those grooves that rises and falls and I swear they could just keep playing this one song from sunset to sunrise and I’d still be listening. “Less is Moi” has the same addictive quality with a different riff that uses Duncan’s plectrum banjo and Thile’s mandolin to drive things forward.

So just what is a “goat rodeo” you may ask… Mr. Ma puts it like this – “If there were forks in the road and each time there was a fork, the right decision was made, then you get to a goat rodeo.” I don’t know about you, but this album proves that sometimes you can put lightning in a bottle. The Goat Rodeo Sessions is now among my favorite albums to listen to for no reason at all but the sheer pleasure of doing so. I can only hope that the success of this album will lead to more collaborations in the future!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.com here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Driftwood Fire – How to Untangle a Heartache

Hey there!

Since college, I’ve been entranced by the chanteuses of modern folk and Americana, especially those who prefer playing acoustic instruments. (Nothing wrong with electric guitars, but I find it harder to actually hear melodies and voices when the volume is cranked.) Among some of my favorites are the Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin, and Brandi Carlile. Each of these not only has an amazing voice, but understands the power of strong songwriting, layered harmonies, and how to play the right instrument for the right mood.

I love adding new artists to my list and it’s definitely grown and changed over the years – moving from more rock-n-roll to bluegrass, Americana, and folk as I get older. All it takes is a lick, a verse, or a bit of harmony that leads me to discovering more about a new voice or musician…

But it’s hard to argue when you’re pointed to musicians who went to school at your alma mater and are based in the college town you called home for five years. Lynn Scharf (singer, guitarist) and Charlotte Formichella (multi-instrumentalist) are known as Driftwood Fire and they call Fort Collins, Colorado home. And though it’s been a long road for them from inception to album, How to Untangle a Heartache has a purity about it that makes it a joy to listen to.

There are qualities to Lynn’s voice that reminds me of Brandi Carlile in “Let it all go”. With Charlotte’s opening pick line… “Don’t break my heart / it’ll never mend / we’re starting something / and we don’t know how it ends / just drive me someplace I’ve never seen / so late at night I mistake / you for a dream / and kiss me real slow / and just let it all go…” It’s a song about doing what feels good even if we know better. And sometimes, life is like that. There’s an honesty there that shines through.

“Apalachian Hills” has a haunting quality, sort of like something Sarah Jarosz would sing. It tells a story about a place chased by its past and showing through to the present. Here there’s a simple arrangement that lets the guitar, banjo, piano, and voice easily express the sadness of the place. Between the Civil War, silver miners, and other folks seeking their fortunes – leaving many dead in the fields, forgotten by time. Though not cheerful, again – there’s an honest appreciation for the history of a place without overblowing it with loud electric guitars.

The simple strum and lead guitar at the beginning of “One Thing Left” reminds me a Big Head Todd and the Monsters song… But again, it’s the lyrics that bring it alive. “You wrote a letter / apologizing / for your absence / not realizing / that only hurt me / I read it slowly / shaking like a bird fighting with the wind / shocked I was all alone…” This is almost a country song with the Americana showing through. But that “one thing left” to tell you – is that I’ve moved on. I keep repeating that there’s an honesty in the music and the words, but that’s what it is. A simple message – you hurt me, but I got over it.

Love can definitely hurt – but at least when poets and songwriters survive it, it’s “food for songs” as Del Amitri once said. Thank goodness Lynn and Charlotte have managed to work out their heartache in song so that we can enjoy the fruits of that musical therapy. Definitely check out Driftwood Fire’s How to Untangle a Heartache if you’re looking for something new in the Americana/Folk vein for your collection.

Check out the Driftwood Fire home page for more information about the album or their ongoing tour.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Amy Black – One Time

Hi there!

Occasionally I find my musical tastes more than a little ironic. For instance, I have always been a fan of folk music. And in recent years I’ve broadened that to include some Americana and Bluegrass in the mix. But I’ve never been a fan of country music. Whether it’s the grating steel guitars or the oft-repeated and stereotypical themes of “lost my truck/dog/girl,” I can’t say. But it’s always been a sticking point in my head.

That said, I have been very amused by how close to country I’m getting with some Americana. I wonder why that is? Anyway, listening to Amy Black’s album “One Time” due out March 29th, I was reminded of this. Many of the tunes are on that mythical Country border, but I found them both entertaining and in some cases even beautiful. Am I finally crossing the line and enjoying Country music? Only time will tell.

One Time is Black’s sophomore effort, after Amy Black & the Red Clay Rascals back in 2009. Where that first album was mostly covers along with two originals, One Time features nine originals. Each song has a classic Americana feel, but mixes in a bit of blues and country influence for good measure. Black’s voice through it all has a genuine heartfelt folksy feel and storytelling style, all backed up by a great band. If this is country-esque, then I’m on board to hear more from Black and the Red Clay Rascals going forward, genre-be-damned.

As you might guess, the songs I liked the most are typically along the Americana/Bluegrass side of the spectrum. “Run Johnny” is my favorite, telling the story of a man on the run. Intermixed with the story is a great fiddle, steel guitar, and banjo keeping the song moving along is Black’s voice singing “You better run, run Johnny / Lawman’s on his way / Better get outta Alabamy / ‘fore the break of day…” Black is haunting as she tells the man he needs to get on his way after killing his woman. And the guitar solo in the middle of the song sounds great.

“One Time,” the title song, seems to be a straight up blues song with some Bluegrass style. “Look him in the eyes / Say “Baby, baby this bird’s gotta fly” – it’s time for the woman to take control of her life and walk away from a man who’s no good for her. It sounds just like a woman talking to one of her girlfriends in a bar. Again, it’s the story that drives the song and it feels genuine. It’s tough to discount advice such as “You only live one time… get on with your life.”

And “Words Fail You” is Country through and through, but somehow the simple arrangement and heartfelt delivery makes it beautiful. The song, originally by Kris Delmhorst, tells the story about a relationship that a pair wants to work, but doesn’t know how. “And I know words fail you / … Well baby sometimes they fail me too.” It’s the things not said that fill the room. “Now this Toyota is getting crowded with all the things that no one’s saying / and if I opened up my mouth now I think I would be praying.” The slow, romantic song feels like it’s about a real couple. And Black sells it with every note.

Based in Boston, Black wants to make music full time and I think she’ll make it work. I’d be surprised if I didn’t hear she was up for any number of awards come award show season. Her expressive voice, great band, and passion will take her straight to the ears and hearts of many fans that won’t let her be forgotten. Be sure to check out One Time from Amy Black when at her website – AmyBlack.com. If you like Americana and Country, there’s a lot to love here.

–Fitz

p.s. Be sure to pick up Amy Black’s music at her website!

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