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 The intimacy and seriousness of the introduction to the opener, The Weather She Breaks is superseded by the band picking up the tune and running with it.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.



Corn Potato String Band – Corn Potato String Band – Review

Corn Potato String Band

Recorded (live, without overdubbing) in January 2014, the debut self-titled album from The Corn Potato String Band is now available. The trio – Aaron Jonah Lewis (fiddle, banjo, guitar, baritone fiddle), Ben Belcher (banjo and guitar) and Lindsay McCaw (fiddle, guitar, banjo, Hawaiian steel guitar and baritone fiddle), describe themselves as being  ‘dedicated to continuing the traditional fiddle and banjo music and dance of the Central Southern US’. The record contains a variety of different songs and, predominantly tunes, taking in hoedowns, rags, and Mexican pieces, all set off with twin fiddling and double banjo.

The timing, sense of both time and place, and outright fun of pieces like Bell & Anchor Rag is impossible to miss. I couldn’t help shuffling along in my seat as the tune unfolded. The Band manage to evoke, through their choice of music and how it is presented, soul, humour and feeling (Chesapeake Bay). The music allows you to feel the band having as good a time playing, as we are having listening. There is much to be said for the way in which they have been able to put their own stamp on the material contained on ‘Corn Potato…’, and ensure that the power of the traditions they uphold shines through.

The original piece Route 77 has a lovely Greek/Mediterranean feel, with a summery disposition you just want to tap into time and time again, whilst Peor Es Nada shows off playing which, in common with much on the album, is both thrilling and on the edge – but constrained at the same time. The tunes are played with verve, a little bit of daring, and a sense of what the band are doing and why. Echoes of other types of music spill over into all of the pieces here, showing how much music moves across human-placed borders, and how good bands are not afraid of mixing things up. Marsovia for example shows crossover into the classical realm, and how close traditional and art music can be, in the right hands.

There is much variety in the styles and paces of the dance tunes, with the walking Nola rubbing shoulders with hotter sets like Chinese Breakdown, which shows off the skills of the bands members. All of the tracks really are consummately played and delivered.

‘The Corn Potato String Band’ is a fun, sweet record, with razor sharp tunes played with proper old time feeling. The selection, and the repertoire displayed, is inspirational. Tunes like Going To Town really move, generating energy and enthusiasm through their musicianship.

The band are in the UK in the summer, and play the Stag and Hounds in Bristol on the 29th May, amongst other venues.