Barnstar!- C’Mon!   Leave a comment


Typically, I don’t like exclamation marks; they seem a little obvious, to me. Like dying your hair green or getting a ‘mohawk’. They scream, Look at me!

Okay, so I still use them, probably more often than I should.

Barnstar! is the bluegrass project of one of my favourite singer-songwriters, Mark Erelli, and a bunch of his Boston-based musician pals. Their album C’Mon! was recently released and I featured the album in my Red Deer Advocate Roots Music column two weeks ago. Here it is, and thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

Barnstar ! C’mon! Barnstar.bandcamp.com

Massachusetts has long been a hot spot for inspired bluegrass. From the days of the Lilly Brothers and Don Stover, through Joe Val and Southern Rail to modern artists including Crooked Still and products of the Berklee College of Music including Sarah Jarosz and Sierra Hull, the area surrounding Boston has produced serious bluegrass. The latest outfit to come out of the area is the accidental bluegrass band, Barnstar!

Accidental in that members of Barnstar! are well-established individuals with independent careers who didn’t start playing together with the intention of forming a permanent touring band.

Jake Armerding (fiddle, vocals) and his father Taylor (mandolin, vocals) have deep bluegrass credentials including years fronting Northern Lights; since then, Jake has carved out a niche as a respected instrumentalist and performer.

Mark Erelli (guitar, vocals) is an incredible songwriter and singer with a string of exceptional albums in his rucksack as well as an album of murder ballads with Jeffrey Foucault and sideman gigs with the likes of Josh Ritter and Lori McKenna. Zack Hickman (bass, vocals) is a producer of note who has also played with Ritter as well as Kris Delmhorst, and banjo player Charlie Rose spent time with west coast old-timers The Crooked Jades.

C’mon! is 46 minutes of modern, song-based (as opposed to sound-based) non-traditional bluegrass- the roots of the Traveling Wilburys (whose Handle Me With Care closes the disc) are as important as those of The Stanley Brothers- which isn’t to detract from the quality of the album, because it is a very strong, enjoyable recording: but the Lonesome River Band it isn’t.

A collaboration as strong as its parts, the members of Barnstar! play off each other to create a cohesive sound that is mindful of traditional bluegrass- instrumental precision balanced by the ease of a living room jam, vocal harmonies that soar and blend, and songs that emphasize story over poetic ambiguity- while shape-shifting within those confines.

Take My Ashes to the River has all the pain and melancholy of the ageless Scots-Irish mountain songs on which the bluegrass tradition is built, but the song is an Erelli original and serves as one of the album’s pinnacle numbers. More familiar will be the songs the band has chosen to bluegrassify: Paul Simon’s Boy in the Bubble, Neil Young’s Cowgirl in the Sand, The Louvins’ Cash on the Barrelhead, and the timeless I Think We’re Alone Now.

Taylor Armerding’s Northern Rail is a highlight as is a new Erelli composition, Charlottesville. A second song from the Northern Lights’ repertoire serves as the album’s spiritual focus; Build It Up features some of the album’s finest vocal harmony. Dawes’ When My Time Comes may over-reach as a bluegrass song, but it is a great showcase for four-part harmony and Erelli’s vocal performance is faultless; Mumford & Sons fans take note.

C’mon! may not be a ‘between the lines’ bluegrass release- some songs have more troubadour swing than full-throttle drive- but it is a darn fine example of what happens when disparate talents come together to play music they love.

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