Bearfoot- American Story

Another week, another great album. Over at Country Standard Time, Jeff has posted my review of the latest from Bearfoot. After more than a decade as a functioning bluegrass outfit, a core of two remain from the band of young Alaskans who took much of the (mostly western) bluegrass world by storm. They are stronger than ever with a sound that is all their own. I saw them nine or ten years ago at Wintergrass and they aren’t the same band they were then. Give it a read:

Also, a couple reviews from the archives- one from 2003 that Bluegrass Now rejected and one from 2008 that they may have published; what I find interesting is that it is obvious that in as much as Bearfoot changed and developed, I hope I have as well- Gold in a Way:

from 2008: Bearfoot Follow Me Glacier

It has been a long time since a recording has surprised me as much as Follow Me.

When we last heard a recording from Bearfoot in 2003, they were known as Bearfoot Bluegrass, and were saddled with some of the trappings of being youngsters performing bluegrass as a traveling troupe.

Hailing from Alaska, the quintet has maintained a consistent lineup for their third recording, and brings appealing confidence and maturity to the Gene Libbea-produced Follow Me. The teenagers who were seen at festivals across the continent have grown up, completed degrees, and got on with the business of being professional musicians.

What is most obvious about the band is the distance they have moved away from bluegrass within their new sound. Today’s Bearfoot has firmly embraced the New Acoustic approach of groups such as Nickel Creek and, to a lesser extent, Crooked Still.

Bearfoot is comprised of Annalisa Tornfelt (guitar and fiddle), Kate Hamre (acoustic bass), Angela Oudean (fiddle), Jason Norris (mandolin), and Mike Mickelson (guitar.) All five sing various parts with the ladies’ voices much more apparent on the recording than the men.

Annalisa has a voice for the ages, and she is more prominently featured on Follow Me than on their previous album, Back Home. Her voice may be described as sultry, but it is more than what that term implies. Like Trisha Gagnon (John Reischman & the Jaybirds,) Annalisa possesses that extra special something- a soulful breathlessness and ease of vocalizing- that creates an uneven playing field for those who are simply gifted. Her vocal display is strengthened by the support it receives from Angela’s tenor.

Mike’s take of the jam favorite “Deep River Blues” is bluesy and swinging, a description that also applies to several other tunes on the album including the openers “Molasses” and “Go on Home.” An avian theme is also apparent with a bright, but old-timey reading of  “The Blackest Crow” with Kate singing lead followed by a rendition of Becky Buller’s “Little Bird;” neither song has much to do with birds, but both are delightful!

As time passes, people change and so does the music they want to play. Don’t hold it against Bearfoot that they are no longer the sweet teens who captured imaginations at the turn of the century playing bluegrass.

Instead, embrace the more complex and fully realized version of the band that encourages listeners to Follow Me.

from 2003: Bearfoot Bluegrass- Back Home  Glacier Records

Bearfoot Bluegrass is an enthusiastic, personable young band working the western bluegrass festival circuit.  Comprised of five college-aged musicians, the band is engaging live, making them favorites at the many important festivals they have played in both the United States and Canada over the last number of years.  Combined with their laudable mission of bringing youngsters to bluegrass music through their well-received youth workshops, one has a story seemingly created by People magazine.

Bearfoot Bluegrass are: Annalisa Woodlee (fiddle), Kate Hamre (acoustic bass), Jason Norris (mandolin), Angela Oudean (fiddle, guitar), and Mike Mickelson (guitar.)  All except Norris contribute vocally.

On their second album Bearfoot Bluegrass show that they have many miles to travel before they can be considered more than pretenders within the bluegrass world.  One hesitates to be too harsh on this well-meaning quintet from Alaska, or on their producer, acoustic musician Todd Phillips.  However, when the execution of a project so dramatically fails, one must consider the purchasing public when sharing views.

Overwhelmingly, the album leans closer to easy listening, new age folk than to mountain realism, especially when the talented but oh, so laid back, ladies take the lead.  Oudean suffers the fate of many young vocalists early in their development, that of confusing emotion with emoting; with time, this immature tendency disappeared from the sound of, say, Nickel Creek as it well may from the vocals of Bearfoot Bluegrass.  Woodlee seems to have greater control over her vocal gifts and isn’t afraid to get a little dirty when the song calls for such.  For example, with a frat rock party riff,  “Won’t Be Long” is immediately engaging as a light-hearted romp; with upbeat vocals and restrained instrumentation the song, however, bears little resemblance to the bluegrass I know and love.  However, if acoustic Memphis soul is your thing, this song delivers. 

Never is their inability to convey sincere communication more clearly expressed than on ‘The Sweetest Gift;” a mature song requiring a certain amount of life experience, the vocal duo more resemble a community talent show entry than wizened wise women sharing bold truths.

“I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome” is more like it- a bit of power behind the vocals, some push being delivered by the mando chop.  Mike Mickelson takes the lead on this number and, in two short minutes, enlivens what had been a dreary aural experience. 

Jason Norris’ “Pretty Lady” maintains the bluegrass feel with an instrumental that has some drive within its soft sounds.  The other highlight of the album would be Mickelson’s only other lead feature, “Fishtrap John.”  Written by the guitarist, the song covers unfamiliar territory within a traditional frame as a loner, harvesting northern lands, is unjustly murdered by a gang of ne’er do wells;’ the discovery of his body years later is cleverly told by this engaging young lyricist.

There can be no arguing the instrumental virtuosity of any of the musicians within the band.  Their playing betrays no weaknesses on the disc’s dozen numbers; smooth and careful, the members appear well practiced and proficient.  The overall mood of the album is a bit too intense for me, perhaps a result of youngsters trying just a bit too hard to be seen as capable.  At times it sounds as if there are two distinct bands at work in Bearfoot Bluegrass- the guys- interested in more traditional bluegrass and acoustic sounds- and the gals- enamored with the sounds of wistful pop-folkies.  While this dichotomy may help them appeal to a broad audience, such diverse manners of presentation makes one question how sincerely impassioned they are by their music.

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