Reviews by Eilís Boland

Underhill Rose Live Self Release 

Melding their influences of folk, jazz, blues, pop and country into one glorious whole, founding members Eleanor Underhill and Molly Rose Reed, along with Salley Williamson, have been travelling far from their North Carolina base for several years, bringing their music across the USA and to Europe. This album, recorded over a couple of nights in front of appreciative hometown crowds in Asheville and Lexington last year, is a testament to the joy of their live performances. The fifteen songs here cover the gamut of their original material and their judicious choice of contemporary covers.

While they are essentially a string band playing traditional instruments, there’s a contemporary sensibility to their music. Most striking of all, however, are their soulful three part harmonies - so sweetly blended they are that one could be forgiven for thinking that they are sisters.

Eleanor’s clawhammer style banjo playing is a dominant force throughout these recordings, so it’s not a surprise that she’s a Deering Banjo endorsed artist. Her sweet playing might even be enough to win over those odd few who think they don’t actually like the much maligned banjo! She sings lead on her own song, the country bluesy Whispering Pines Hotel, and you’re immediately transported to another place - think swampy southern badlands.

Her harmonica playing is also striking and used to good effect on several songs. Salley Williamson’s bass playing ably anchors down the trio throughout. They Got my Back is her lovely tribute to the power of friendships from childhood - her vocals are perfectly complemented here by Eleanor’s harmonica playing.

Molly is the writer of most of the original songs on here, as well as being the guitarist. Her powerful voice has a great range and her songs are memorable and mostly upbeat, with contemporary themes - no murder ballads here.

The five cover versions include a gorgeous rendition of the Jamey Johnson co-write In Colour; an unusual version of Bette Davis Eyes that really works, and the album wraps up with John Prine’s Long Monday 

On top of all this, the CD is lovingly presented in an ethically-sourced cardboard digipak, featuring linocuts and woodcuts by the multitalented Molly Rose Reed. Highly recommended.

Big Sadie Keep Me Waiting Spindle Tree 

Husband and wife Elise Bergman (bass, vocals) and Collin Moore (guitar, vocals) have been musical collaborators for over ten years. Two years ago they formed Big Sadie with two other musicians (Andy Malloy on banjo, Matt Brown on fiddle) and this self produced debut recording has resulted. All are now based in Elise’s native Chicago, also home of the legendary Old Time School of Music. 

Old Time meets Bluegrass here on the eleven original songs and one instrumental, all co-writes by Collin and Elise. The songs are well crafted, with memorable melodies, all performed at a gentle pace, in keeping with their universal themes of love and loss. 

Elise sings the lead mostly, accompanied by Collin on harmonies - they have the sweet harmonies down to a fine art, after years of performing together. The musicianship is certainly competent throughout but the secret weapon here is Matt Brown’s fiddle playing. He lifts every track up a notch with his truly superb and inventive playing. His day job finds him teaching fiddle, banjo and guitar at the aforementioned Old Time School of Music.

Need Your Love (Collin taking lead vocal duties) is an example of Matt’s fiddle genius - his riffs and breaks dominate throughout the song, taking it up several notches. This is the closest to a traditional bluegrass song on the album.

At times Elise’s voice is reminiscent of Gillian Welch, especially on Corn Liquor. Here again Matt Brown impresses. Good Woman is a plaintive plea from a frustrated woman who feels hopelessly stuck in a rut and unappreciated - again Elise’s vocals are complemented by sensitive fiddle playing by Matt. 

Overall, though, I kept hoping for a stand out vocalist who could really do these songs justice.

Elise’s talents also extend to design - she is responsible for the attractive digipak, utilising black and white photographs to good effect.

Steep Ravine  Turning Of The Fall Stormy Deep 

‘You can turn away from changes, but after a while you’ll turn up awfully strange’ - Out My Window

Songwriter Simon Linsteadt may not have been feeling quite like that when writing these songs, but the evidence from most of the songs on this, the band’s third release, is that he at least was suffering from a badly broken heart.

The band all hail from the San Fransisco Bay area, and have been playing around there for several years.Describing their own sound as folk rock and new grass, I would also throw some jazz, pop and Laurel Canyon into the descriptor. Simon Linsteadt, who is a multi instrumentalist met Jan Purat (fiddle, mandolin) at high school and they both went on to study music at university. They were later joined by Jeff Wilson (percussion and keys) and Alex Bice (bass).

There’s a peaceful easy feeling sound to this album. It’s not going to cause any earthquakes or shock you into action. The lyrics are fairly straightforward - mostly dealing with the aforementioned broken heart.

And mostly you are lulled into a false sense of calm, drifting along in the pleasant wave of complacency and perhaps mild depression - until suddenly you are awoken by the killer fiddle playing of Jan Purat. This is where the new grass influence really shines through.

Jan single handedly lifts the production with his dramatic fiddle breaks and harmonising with guitar on most of the songs.

Sugar Sand really stands out above the rest of the pleasant enough songs here - it’s a classic example of the familiar Californian country rock sound.

Viper Central  The Spirit Of God and Madness Self Release 

Although they’ve been together for over ten years, surprisingly this is only the third release from the Vancouver string band Viper Central. No strangers to these shores, you very well may have seen them playing enthusiastically at a venue or festival somewhere in Ireland or Britain in the past few years.

Having started off as a bluegrass ensemble, the five original members are reassuring still together, but this album moves into new territory.

Actually, it’s a record of two halves: the second half is made up of mainly bluegrass and old timey tunes and songs, mostly original, whereas the first half strays into all new territory. This truly is roots music at it’s finest.

Texas Swing is to the fore in the opening song Gold Mine, with its pedal steel, electric guitar and piano and it allows principal songwriter and band leader Kathleen Nisbet to show her vocal chops. As well as being a very impressive fiddle player, Kathleen’s smoky, sultry, bluesy voice is perfect for these songs.

Next thing we’re into Mariachi territory with the uptempo horn laden Losing My Mind - it’s fun and it works.

Again on 99 Cents Short, rockabilly and 50s swing dances are recalled, with Tim Tweedale’s pedal steel and the new addition of drums to the band’s sound.

Being proud Canadians and very aware of their country’s mixed heritage, many of the songs tell vivid stories of historical characters, real or imagined. Guest CR Avery plays smokin’ hot harmonica on the bluesy swing of Ned Kelly, where the wonderful Steve Charles gets to sing lead and duel the harmonica with his equally smokin’ banjo playing.

History creeps in again, on Prophet of The New World, when Kathleen sings of her ancestor, Louis Riel. Against an insistent bass drum, electric guitars and thumping bass, Kathleen’s fiddle playing is just superb on this, one of the standout tracks.

Say Say is a slower rolling bluesy song, where Mark Vaughan’s mandolin interplays with Steve’s banjo. Cherry Red finds Kathleen singing of being abandoned by her lover, over a backdrop of electric slide guitar.

The second half opens with a bluegrass tribute to a young woman from Rathfriland in Co Down, who is little known outside of her native Ireland. Catherine O’Hare has entered the folklore of British Columbia, because after she emigrated in the 19th century to the US, she became the first woman to cross the Canadian Rockies on foot (and with three children in tow!) - in I Won’t Be Left Behind Kathleen tells her story.

One of the few covers, an uptime bluegrass version of Gram Parson’s Luxury Liner is the closer.

Having initially been sceptical of the new direction, and particularly of the drums throughout the first half of the album, I have to admit that repeated playing has won me over completely. This has become one of my favourite releases of the year.

Mark Lavengood We’ve Come Along Earthwork 

‘Who’s Mark Lavengood? I never heard of him …’ or so I thought until I realised that he’s the smiley bearded genius dobro player with Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys.

This is Mark’s third solo release and here he’s able to shine in his own right, accompanied by his 4-piece Bluegrass Bonanza band, all based in Michigan.

Mark is one of the best dobro players on the US circuit and on this record he showcases his own compositions, both instrumentals and songs. There’s also a selection of covers, some old, some new.

The album opens with the self-written title track - an uplifting song about triumphing over adversity. Clocking in at seven minutes, it allows the band members lots of opportunities to show off their individual instruments, all held together by Mark’s incredible playing on dobro and guitar. The cascading melodic rolls of the dobro, guitars, mandolin, banjo and bass are layered together into a joyous whole. 

Another memorable song, written by friend Russ Brakefield, is the haunting Vulpes vulpes (the red fox, to you and me). Mark takes lead vocals but it’s the arrangements and playing that really impress here, as they do throughout the album. Mark’s lead vocal here is reminiscent of early Neil Young - although Mark’s fragile falsetto is probably an acquired taste.

While singing may not be Mark’s forté, his songwriting, playing and arranging more than make up for it. There are several instrumental compositions - mostly short vignettes - that are truly superb, and that leave you wanting more. 

Mark’s influences are obviously wide and the predominant feel is is of newgrass fused with world music, blues and country rock, with more than a smidgen of psychedelia. The warmth and enthusiasm of Mark Lavengood shine through alright - leaving you with a smile on your face, just like the man himself!