Sweetwater String Band – River Of Rhymes – Review

Sweetwater String Band

Sweetwater String Band

Sweetwater String Band are a four piece who formed in 2008 in the Mammoth Lakes area of California. Their music is inspired by their local area, the ‘wild deserts and high mountains’ of the east of the state, which leads to some very vivid and interesting features of their music and songwriting. River Of Rhymes, which features all new songs from the band (Dave Huebner, cello; Jeff Meadway, guitar; Scott Roberts (latterly of Durango, CO), mandolin and Patrick Ferguson, bass), and, according to the band’s materials, contains ‘introspective revelations, vivid natural imagery, political commentary, (and a) tribute to Doc Watson’.

On the new record, the band have created a work of both intimacy and wide-scale, cinematic vistas. A work which juxtaposes serious insight and commentary with bright, often jaunty, almost athletic arrangements. The intimacy and seriousness of the introduction to the opener, The Weather She Breaks is superseded by the band picking up the tune and running with it. The sound has a definite ‘classic’ edge to it, but this is coupled with a feel which is very much personal to the band and their influences, those of the natural environment, which surround them. As soon as the album starts, you feel as though both it, and the band who have produced it, are a one-off. Huebner’s signature cello adds layers of depth to the opening track, as his involved bow work adds both tempo and melody to the song’s tale of traveling, wandering, and returning.

Empty Road’s intriguing lead vocals and high harmonies are counterbalanced by a driving tempo, and the song is the first in a series of moments which illustrate how the bands arrangements work so well. The sound is deep and earthy, with all parts functioning as a well-balanced unit. The songs work because the band does, and vice versa.

The aforementioned tribute to the late Mr Watson, Doc’s Waltz is a lovely, lilting, smiling tribute to the man who brought joy to so many. The cello floats over and above its musical compatriots, showing off the SSB’s new and different string band music – an uncanny combination of old and new, South East and North West. It’s relaxing, almost beguiling tone is offset by its commentary on environmental and social situation – and this is not the last time the album will visit this juxtaposition.

A bright, sprightly tune interacts with a song of localness, local knowledge and attitude and the imposition of outsiders and the environmental damage and destruction which this can lead to on They Turned The Mountains Upside Down. The importance of staying honest and true is driven along by strong, powerful accompaniment, and this theme is continued on Flood, albeit to a slower, more creeping tune, as we are warned about what is happening now, and of the power of nature over everything, even man.

Workingman’s Blues shows the band’s passion for true stories told through observance and the understanding of what is really happening in the world. One way of resisting the destruction of our locales is by highlighting these transgressions through the measures of writing songs and singing them – that is why it is important for as many people as possible to hear this song, this record and this band.

The Sweetwater String Band are an incredibly together unit, and understand their music and each other. Their playing, and their harmonies, are intuitive, and they display a great deal of respect for what they are doing. The ups and downs of life are discussed on What Goes Up, with flowing cello, light, sparkling mandolin and good back up from bass and guitar. We are reminded that despite disagreements, we all share ground, and everyone is the same in the end.

A neat touch of banjo pops up on It’ll Be OK, a loving, tender tribute to a partner which really sums up the togetherness of the band – another constant theme of the record, both in terms of the music and the contents of the songs.

Tossin’ and Turnin’ has a really well-worked and interesting, toe-tapping tune which rises and falls as the beat keeps going and the various instruments weave in and out. It reveals the variety of moods which the band have captured on River Of Rhymes, exploring what they can do and what works – and it all works really well. Closer A Million Miles has some more beautiful banjo, as it drives along in a Chatham County Line style. The words recount life in a band, on tour and on the road – full of wide expanses and close, intimate playing and harmonies.

River Of Rhymes is one of those records which are instantly likeable, a truly worthy listen. The songs are great, their playing immaculate, and their approach and subject matters fascinating. The band have an interesting sound, diverse and different.

Be sure to catch them on the road when you can, more information on their touring plans can be found at: http://www.sweetwaterstringband.com/


Hook & Anchor – Hook & Anchor – Review


Hook & Anchor are a new Portland, Oregon-based band with something of a pedigree. Bringing together Blind Pilot’s Kati Claborn, Luke Ydstie, and Ryan Dobrowski with veteran old time specialist Gabrielle Macrae (of The Macrae Sisters), and Erik Clampitt of Clampitt, Gaddis & Buck and Power of County, all of the individual members of the band add in touches of their own personal style, with Claborn on banjo and guitar, Clampitt electric guitar and pedal steel, Macrae fiddle, banjo, guitar and Ydstie and Dobrowski on bass and piano and drums respectively. Different members of the band add lead vocals at different times, with the overall feel one of ‘country, folk, and rock and roll, with every track pushing definitions across a new border’.

The new album has been recorded in a mostly live setting with Type Foundry’s Adam Selzer on production duties. After the country stylings of opener Famously Easy, we are presented with the clawhammer banjo of Wild Wind. The five-string blends with the rock feel of the track, which later reaches almost Fleetwood Mac heights, before descending into Macrae’s old time fiddle. The record really gets into its stride with the joy of Concerning Spectral Pinching, which begins with an old time/bluegrass feel to it, with the vocals fitting in with the fiddle and bass of the intro, only to restart with more pace, converting to a rambling, country style – an interesting juxtaposition which shows how the band can handle both sides of the coin together. The song works well – flowing, soaring, and positive – with the reach of styles well controlled, and the band holding a power over the music and their arrangements.

Light Of The Moon is a great song, direct, capable, and thrilling, which both taps into the spirit of the music and takes it to new places. Resounding fiddle moves the sound up and out, resulting in a warm, happy feeling as the music reaches further into your soul. The feeling continues with the more lonesome, contemplative No, It’s Not, as the drums move in around the stringed instruments, allowing the song to rise up, and outwards, with a hymnal quality which is a feature of Hook & Anchor. This hymnal idea continues on Hammer, with the bands’ voices intertwining to produce an elegiac feeling.

Blackbird shows how deep the band’s commitment to their music runs, with both strength and depth to a country arrangement which will pull at your heart, and Fine Old Times proves that they can pull off delicate and subtle as well. The album closes with the heavenly, angelic Rock, Salt & Nails, which has a simple, traditional feel to it, reflecting the real life, real songs and real music of the entire project.

Hook & Anchor is a strong, sweet record, evocative and full of emotions, played out using a number of different combinations of sound which work really well, and that the band have obviously thought in great detail about. The sound is convincing (as evidenced on songs like Hard Times), and the interesting line up and songs should serve as a model for other bands.

The album is released July 22, 2014, via Jealous Butcher and Woodphone Records.

Strictly Roots Top 5 at 5 – w/e 22/06/14

Good evening one and all, welcome to this week’s selection of roots music from across the world. On my personal jukebox this week has been old time songs from Kentucky, English traditional pieces and some very nice rootsy bluegrass. Let’s open up this week’s box, and see what we can find.


The Hickory Nuts – The Louisville Burgler

The Hickory Nuts seem to have been a group put together by the Okeh Record Company, and here they are performing The Louisville Burglar, way back in 1927. The song is a variant of the more widely-known Boston Burglar, and is a piece I have examined for a forthcoming piece on Louisville.com. A really nice example of some old time string band music, enjoy.




Eliza Carthy – Just As The Tide Was Flowing

Eliza’s long been one of my favourite singers, and this is one of her best songs. Containing all the requisites for a traditional piece, sweetness, longing, and some of the best language I’ve found in song in a long time, this is one of the song’s on Eliza’s 2002 album Anglicana, which still sounds great today. I urge you to add it to your collection if you haven’t already done so. Just As The Tide Was Flowing.



Jack Old Dog – South Australia

This next one is just fantastic. Jack Old Dog is a Bristol-based singer, who performs traditional and contemporary material with a range of bands around the city. This great video was made in one of the shipyards on Bristol’s harbourside and really captures not only the essence of the song, but also Jack’s charm and performance style. There are more video of Jack, made by the filmmaker, Michael Sides, due to come, so keep an eye on this great singer.



Anna & Elizabeth – The Devil’s Nine Questions/Billy In The Lowground

I mention Anna & Elizabeth in my latest Beacon piece, about how song aids culture and tradition to continue. They are taking forward the traditions they have learned, and are doing it in unique, but at the same time reverant ways. Here, they perform The Devil’s Nine Questions and Billy In The Lowground alongside one of their ‘crankies’, which are art pieces which contain and contribute to the narrative of the story. Check it out, it’s just lovely.



Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys – The Fix

I recently discovered the music of Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys whilst reviewing for AmericanaUK. I noted their “pretty authentic roots sound which more than reveals their own angle and take on the music.” This is the video for their track The Fix, which shows off a good aesthetic which is captured on, and shows off, the music. As with all the cuts on the Top 5, I urge you to investigate, grab and spread wherever you can.



Chatham County Line – Rendezvous – Review


Ahead of their new album, Tightrope, which is out now on Yep Roc, North Carolinians Chatham County Line have put together a very special collection of songs hand-picked by the band from throughout their twenty-odd year career. The time has seen them release six studio albums, seemlessly blending their take on the traditions which they are part of and their strong sense of southern musical heritage.

The CCL sound is strong and distinctive, made up of Dave Wilson (guitar), John Teer (mandolin, fiddle), Chandler Hold (banjo), and Greg Readling (bass), with the different parts fitting together like the cogs of a trusted machine. The way the instruments ‘drop in’ together on opener The Traveler is something to behold, with the song acting as a memory of the experiences of travelling and realising that there is nothing in the world like lost love. Wilson’s is more than just another guitarist-lead singer, with real range and depth to accompany the sliding guitar and popping, rolling banjo.

The CCL sound rolls and ranges, adding blues harp to Out Of The Running. Here, the addition of steel guitar sends the song into slightly Simon & Garfunkel territory, all longing and bittersweet, blending country and bluegrass together in a natural fit.

I really did experience a sensation of shock, wonder when I heard The Carolinian – shock and wonder as to how good it is, and how real the story and the emotion feels. The song takes you right into that place, onto that train, into the mind of the character, as he ‘began to wish my life away…’. It’s helped by a perfect bluegrass backing – the way Hold’s banjo drops in unites the  classic and the modern in the genre, as we reflect on life’s chances and opportunities, wondering how it would be if things had been different.

By The Riverside is a more relaxed, lazy ode to kicking back, letting go of responsibilities, and  doing what you want, whilst we return to train stories with the stately Louisiana Freight Train. The story may be one of regret, but the harmonies and instrumentation shows the completeness of a  band in total control of their work.

Chip Of A Star is just great, epic music, rolling along as a mirror to life. Conjuring summery highways and meadows and relaxing evenings with incredible, real music, the banjo roll and chopping rhythm is risen above by the soaring voices. A loving, reverential tribute to a ‘beautiful friend’, it is yet more evidence that the band offer bluegrass and more – and that’s the way CCL does things others don’t

Wildwood has a more classic sound, which introduces other sounds in the form of a piano line around a constant fiddle and banjo presence, and closer Let It Rock, as the title suggests, hangs loose with a live, rock approach. This fun, tongue-in-cheek outro evokes the Byrds or the Eagles, just with bluegrass instrumentation.

Rendezvous is a treat, for fans old and new, showing off the style and versatility which have made Chatham County Line enduring favourites throughout their career. It contains some wonderful songs, played and sung quite brilliantly. Make sure you check it out, and also pick up their new album, which is available now.



Lands End – The Border Sessions – Review

Interesting and expansive music from Lands End, a young five piece, the members of which represent five instruments, three countries, and an interesting mix of musical traditions.

The band revolve around the fulcrum of Sore Fingers, where they met and first performed. The annual workshop-cum-festival has seen the development of many a group within the UK and beyond, and after Lands End’s debut at the event, they have not looked back. The group’s members, Paddy Kiernan (banjo), Richie Foley (mandolin), Hubert Murray (guitar and vocals), Sam Rose (bass, guitar) and Bruno Pichler (dobro) originally made their homes in cities across Ireland, England and Germany, and indeed, ‘Lands End’ hints at the fact that each member comes from a different geographical location.

With influence from bluegrass, the band’s sound is not afraid to take in Irish and Baltic music, and perform sets of original material alongside versions of well-known tunes from America and Europe. They have put together an EP of songs available on Bandcamp and CD which feature the fiddle of Sam Draper, who is currently studying in Boston.

The Leadbelly song Out On The Western Plain struts and swings, and the Irish feel to the boys’ bluegrass is immediately obvious, especially in the lifting, lilting fiddle and mandolin. The lead vocals are especially strong, and the storytelling is handled with seriousness and poise as well as good humour. That the band know their licks is an understatement, and the playing is as good as the band’s origins would suggest.

There’s a definite swagger to be found throughout The Border Sessions, a sound of a band happy to be playing and picking, and the enthusiasm is infectious on cuts like Sunstreet, where the sound ventures slightly West, with influences from old time swing and cowboy music, and Hubert somewhat coming close to a modern-day Jimmie Rodgers (minus the yodelling, for now). The backing is once again firm and robust, with some exceptional dobro and fiddle touches. Equally, the flowing instrumental Salt Spring brings the bands dynamism into play, with the different sounds playing off each other, with a whole achieved which is the addition of all the parts and more.

The boys’ take on Wild Bill Jones is full of life, bringing the perennial bad man ballad into some serious modern territory. A strong sense of beat and rhythm pervades, as is a willingness to put themselves fully into the singing and playing. Lands End are proof not only of the power of the traditions that they tap into, but the ease with which the music is adapted and brought into the hands of the musicians who treat them with the respect they deserve.

Closer Run Buddy Run is another from the pen of Hugh Murray, whose songwriting ability is well rounded for one so young. The entire EP is highly professional, of a very high quality and sets their path for some very exciting times to come. I look forward to hearing more from this talented group in the future.



Lands End