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] Some Strange Country – Crooked Still

Hi everyone…

Who would have thought that bluegrass music would become a guilty pleasure for me? In the last year, I’ve been learning to love bluegrass and Americana, with that unique combination of strings, hope, and passion among those fiddles, banjos, and harmonies strummed, picked, and sung to express life’s loves and losses and the road between. Some Strange Country is my first exposure to the band Crooked Still, but they’ve been around since the early 2000’s.

Aoife O’Donovan’s expressive vocals are but a part of the composite that forms when this quintet purrs along on all cylinders. Joined by bassist Corey DiMario, banjo player Greg Liszt, cellist Tristan Clarridge and fiddler Brittany Haas, the finger-picking and bow-playing layers add depth and balance that makes even the saddest moments full and emotive. To put it bluntly, these people are amazing.

Some Strange Country features a mix of traditional songs, original works, and a surprising version of the Rolling Stones‘ “You Got the Silver.” Nowhere along the album’s path did the group stray from the classical roots of bluegrass or the skills that brought them where they are today – touring to support the album to be released June 1st, 2010.

I knew I was hooked from the first song “Sometimes in this Country.” As O’Donovan sings… “Sometimes I’m in this country / sometimes I’m in this town / sometimes a thought goes through my mind / that I myself will drown…” accompanied by a gentle banjo melody and string bass that drives this song from beginning to end. Through the song you can hear the other band members playing with the rhythm and melody combinations to add almost a jazz-like playfulness between fiddle, cello, the banjo, and vocal harmonies.

Contrast that with the slow, emotional vocal and instrumental melodies of “Distress,” which evokes a feeling of loss. As a lover of traditional Celtic-sounding songs, this one seems to blend an Irish lilt with the bluegrass to create something not entirely new, but sharing a familiar and comfortable sadness that goes beyond ethnic background or musical style.

My second favorite “Half of What We Know” again merges a steady beat with a melody that rises and falls with a Corrs-style chorus above Liszst’s incredible fingers picking the banjo. With poetic verses like “Your lonesomeness I see / but I know it’s not for me / the mountains all have crumbled to the sea…” I lost myself finding meaning in each poetic line. Each turn of phrase might be interpreted any number of ways, as with much of art – a quality missing from far too much of the music heard on the radio today.

And though I’m not a religious person, there’s a passion and energy to “Calvary” that can’t be denied. From the cello and banjo solos and the vocal harmonies, this song simply rocks and tells the story of Jesus’ final day. Who knew a song about events in the Bible could be so well written and entertaining? “Behold faint on the road ‘neath the worlds heavy load / comes a thorn crowned man on the way / with the cross he is bowed but still on through the crowd / he’s ascending to the hill on the grey…” This is the first song in quite a while (since Matt Duke’s acoustic “Kingdom Underground”) where I’ve felt my spirit moved in ways it rarely goes.

Even if you’re not a bluegrass fan and simply like to hear great words, musical skills and performances, I’d recommend you take a listen to what Crooked Still has to offer. This isn’t Hee-Haw bluegrass, but instead a blending of musical styles and sensibilities around the bluegrass feel. Some Strange Country will remain in my listening queue for quite a while.

Be sure to take a look at the Crooked Still website for information about their tour schedule and previous albums.

–Fitz

p.s. Please check out this album and others from Crooked Still below!

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