23 String Band and Nu-Blu reviews posted   Leave a comment

Talk about black and white.

Two very different types of bluegrass are represented by The 23 String Band and Nu-Blu, and my reviews of each band’s new release have been posted over at the Lonesome Road Review.

The edges of bluegrass and jamgrass meet at The 23 String Band while Nu-Blu takes a more smooth, overtly “commercial” approach. I wasn’t much interested in the Nu-Blu album at first listen, and found it a bit syrupy in places but found myself giving it a proper listen last weekend and discovered quite a bit more to appreciate than to criticize. While not the type of album I’m likely to pull off the shelf very often, I can see why many people will enjoy listening to it; it is well executed and features strong vocals.

On the other hand, The 23 String Band appealed from almost the first note, it is a little greasy- but not too greasy- and has an abundance of good material.

Different strings for diffferent folks.

The 23 String Band
Catch 23
No label
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

On his very strong new album, Junior Sisk sings, “A Far Cry from Lester and Earl” and I suspect that outfits like The 23 String Band would be among those feeling his wrath for drifting too far from Carter, Ralph, and “the love of a sweet mountain girl.” Recent online treatises from Chris Pandolfi and Travers Chandler, reasoned as they are, provide further fuel to a misinterpreted belief that bluegrass must evolve away from itself to survive.

The 23 String Band would most likely find themselves agreeing with those on all sides of the big tent, and would encourage those seeking shelter there to stop talking (and writing) and get pickin’.

Like Joy Kills Sorrow, the Steeldrivers, and the Infamous Stringdusters, the 23 String Band doesn’t seem to much care about labels and genre constructs. Rather, their focus is on making music that seems to aggressively poke at the very core of bluegrass before revealing itself to have as much in common with the sound as it does stylistically and atmospherically with popular bluegrass-based acoustiblue bands, the ones that get lumped into the “jam band” category.

None of which would matter if the music didn’t hold up to repeated listening. Fortunately, with their sophomore album—and I’ll be buying that first album first chance I get—this Kentucky-based group has produced an album that entertains while it challenges.

Singing with bleeding-throat intensity softened by an awareness of bluegrass precision, Chris Shouse is the most obvious place to start when examining the 23 String Band’s sound. Always in control, in spots (“Fat Frankie”) Shouse pushes his voice while elsewhere—“Leave Everything to Me,” for example—he gently swings with an old-timey ease; apt comparisons might be Ketch Secor (Old Crow Medicine Show) and Chris Robinson (Black Crowes).

From first listen, T. Martin Stam’s bass and Scott Moore’s fiddle provide a depth of texture that one isn’t accustomed to encountering on relatively unheralded acoustic Americana releases. Mountain Blues indeed is the term that comes to mind listening to tunes such as “Fat Frankie,” “Hey Pretty Mama,” and the title track, an extended instrumental.

Everyone in the band receives vocal credit although Shouse takes all the leads. Dave Howard (mandolin) and Curtis Wilson (banjo) more than round-out the band’s full-frontal aural attack. John Hartford’s “Long Hot Summer Days” is just one of the songs providing ample evidence of Howard’s and Wilson’s talents: the mid-song instrumental interlude is almost trance-inducing.

With most of the eleven tunes being original, the traditions of the music are further explored through choice covers. “Cripple Creek” and “Raleigh & Spencer” are taken for rides. The obligatory rock n’ roll cred-check is provided with a more than satisfactory reading of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “Listen to Her Heart.” Why do I always think of Lucinda Williams when I hear that song?

With so much music coming our way, it is often difficult for an album or band to distinguish themselves from the pile. With an affable quality of performance, The 23 String Band has solved their self-defined Catch 23.

Recommended for fans of Chatham County Line, The Earl Brothers, and Acoustic Syndicate, Catch 23 presents an impressive cohesiveness of style that bodes well for the future of the 23 String Band.

The Blu-Disc
Pinecastle Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Nu-Blu’s backstory is one that publicists salivate over.

A young band, founded by a couple soon-to-be in love and just starting their journey in the bluegrass world, is derailed by a life-threatening catastrophe only to persevere to be the initial signing of a resurrected label.

While it may not work as fiction, the tale of Nu-Blu’s Daniel and Carolyn Routh makes for captivating reading. Shortly after striking out on their own as Nu-Blu, Carolyn suffered a pair of strokes which cost her her voice, the use of her right side, and very nearly her life. During recovery, Daniel was a faithful companion and the pair married a few years later. With several years on the circuit under their belts, the North Carolina-based group was the first band to be signed when Pinecastle was re-launched a year ago.

Nu-Blu’s overall sound is hardly high and lonesome, but works well within the contemporary definition of bluegrass. With definite country overtones and a bluegrass approach that has been influenced by, one imagines, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Nu-Blu’s The Blu-Disc should appeal to a wide segment of the bluegrass population. Heck, “the storm is raging”—from the pen of Mark Brinkman but a line written for RV if there ever was one—even appears in “Must Be The Wind.”

“Any Stretch of Blacktop” and “Every Shade of Blue” are up-tempo songs that contain unrestrained bluegrass drive while “That’s Who I’m Supposed to Be” and “Look to You” feature more subdued approaches. Finely performed, the former song attempts to provide a face to the recent and ongoing financial crisis; instead, the song’s protagonist comes across as a self-deluding complainer and provides the album with its least-satisfying moments.

Coming from the same songwriting team—Marc Rossi and Donna Ulisse—that produced “That’s Who I’m Supposed to Be,” “The Guitar Case” is more successful. The story isn’t unique, but buoyed by Daniel’s vocal performance accompanied by lonesome fiddle from guest Greg Luck, the tale of lost affection, a motel room, and drinking resonates as genuine.

Among the album’s finest songs are two which feature Carolyn’s expressive vocals. “Family Quilt” is as the title suggests a retrospective of the memories and meanings of the fabrics that bind a family. “Roses and Rust,” paired with gravel and dust, provides insight to the life of one who outlives her peers.

Carolyn Routh (bass and vocals) and husband Daniel (guitar and vocals) are augmented throughout by Kendall Gales (mandolin) and Austin Levi (banjo, reso, and vocals) who also takes the lead vocal spot on “Lonesome Heartache Blues,” another album highlight. Greg Luck provides fiddle on a number of cuts while Rob Ickes makes a handful of appearances on Dobro. Christy Reid sings harmony on “Other Woman’s Blues,” a song that has generated airplay.

Nu-Blu doesn’t play the brand of bluegrass I usually find appealing, but their ability on The Blu-Disc to engrain their music with a variety of voices, tempos, and approaches eventually won me over. It is most definitely an album that became more appealing with multiple listenings.

I’m glad I didn’t rush to judgement because Nu-Blu has certainly produced an album of which they can be proud.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald



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