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John Reischman & the Jaybirds- On That Other Green Shore review   Leave a comment

Jaybirds

John Reischman & the Jaybirds
On That Other Green Shore
Corvus Records
http://www.thejaybirds.com/

It has long been known that John Reischman & the Jaybirds are one of my favourite bluegrass combos. To my ears, they have everything I expect from a band—vocal complexity and diversity, exceptional instrumentation and harmonic interplay, rock solid material with a curiosity  for the past and the ingenuity of creative originality.

When I was booking bands for the local association, The Jaybirds were the first non-locals I pursued. In subsequent appearances they never disappointed. I have seen them live about as many times as any bluegrass band I have witnessed, and even briefly used their “Jaybird Ramble” as my radio show theme song.

So, I’m a fan. But I am also a critic, and understand perhaps why they have never ‘broke through’ within the bluegrass world. Being based in western Canada has possibly been an impediment. I’ve heard some say that can appear a bit too polished, and maybe have at times appeared a bit ‘stiff’ on stage, especially early on. Still, the quality of their five previous full-fledged albums (and a seasonal EP) are without question—one of the strongest catalogues any bluegrass band can present since their debut of 2001. Why they are still not as recognized as other bluegrass bands—the Balsam Ranges, the Gibsons, the IIIrd Tyme Outs, and others—remains a mystery to my way of thinking.

John Reischman—having played with the Good Ol’ Persons, Tony Rice, John Miller, Kathy Kallick, and more—has long been one of bluegrass music’s most impressive and versatile mandolinists. Deeply influenced by Bill Monroe, Reischman has had the added benefit of being able to not only follow the inspiration of the instrument’s traditional Master, but to hear and work with others to provide guidance as well as the dedication to shape the instrument and its musical presentation in his own image.

Reischman’s bandmates Nick Hornbuckle (a more than impressive 5-stringer playing in an adapted 2-finger style), Trisha Gagnon (a tasteful bassist with an incredible voice in both lead and harmony positions),  Greg Spatz (an immensely sensitive and versatile fiddler and, as an aside, a formidable writer of prose), and Jim Nunally (a man of many hats including producer, absolutely devastating guitarist, and a singer rivaling Del McCoury, in my opinion) are unparalleled on the Canadian bluegrass scene (the fact that two-members of the group are naturalized Canadian citizens and only Gagnon is Canadian by birth doesn’t escape me) and—should this be a competition—could stand mic-to-mic with any of the most prominent bluegrass bands. [Someone will need to be the referee here, but I believe I may have just written a 113-word sentence that is almost grammatically justified.]

With the release of On That Other Green Shore this summer also comes news that Jim Nunally has left the group, the first personnel changeover the group has experienced. As I’ve already noted, Nunally has been one of the five pillars of the group, and his departure is significant. His playing and singing, as well as personality and songwriting, will be missed. For the unfamiliar, sample the two-song burst mid-set on Field Guide: “Arrowhead,” a Hornbuckle composition, features stunning flat-picking from Nunally while “Shackled and Chained,” one of his songs, is one of Nunally’s many fine vocal performances as a Jaybird.

One That Other Green Shore is not terribly different from previous JR&JB releases, and that is no criticism. The group has established an appealing and winning formula. The group boasts five song- and tune-writers, four vocalists, three-part harmonies, an untouchable duo of lead singers in Gagnon and Nunally, and a singular focus on making bluegrass music that is dynamic and memorable. As they typically do, the Jaybirds here refresh under-appreciated (or at least, under-known) songs from the Americana-roots-old time traditions, mix in some gospels and cracking instrumentals, and a handful of instrumentals as well as (this time) a song from The Beatles to create a unified representation of modern bluegrass.

Gagnon’s “I Don’t Want to Say Goodbye,” written upon her father’s passing, is not only emotional but also soothing. Two numbers feature the Jaybirds’ four-part vocal harmony ‘wall of sound.’ “You’ve Got To Righten That Wrong” and “Don’t You Hear The Lambs A-Crying” come from previous times but seem entirely apropos to current world circumstance, perhaps in ways the originators never intended. Spatz doesn’t contribute an original fiddle tune this time out, but brings to the group Caridwen Irvine Spatz’s “Thistletown,” a mournful and introspective piece well-placed within the 13-song set.

Nanually’s “Gonna Walk” features strong guitar lines, and I suppose serves as a fitting farewell nod to the group of which he has been integral the better part of two decades. “Today Has Been a Lonesome Day” is a song we’ve long heard at Jaybird shows, but makes its recorded debut here: interestingly, for a number that the group first worked up long ago, Patrick Sauber (who is the newest Jaybird) joins the group here on baritone.

 

new jaybirds

The ‘new’ Jaybirds: Image borrowed from the internet: no credit apparent, but will correct/remove if requested

 

Reischman has written dozens of memorable instrumentals, and “Daylighting the Creek” (listen to Spatz’s fiddle here—dang!) and “Red Diamond” join the list. His lead take on Paul McCartney’s “Two of Us,” in duet and close harmony with Gagnon, is a highlight of this recording. As they have done before (think “Shady Grove” from Vintage & Unique and “The House Carpenter” on Stellar Jays) the Jaybirds inject new shades to a familiar piece with the closing “Katie Bar the Door.”

As all John Reischman & the Jaybirds albums have been, On That Other Green Shore is beautifully packaged, and for those who still believe such matters, is well-deserving of purchase as a physical CD. Sneaking up on twenty years, John Reischman & the Jaybirds remain a vibrant part of contemporary bluegrass. Search them out.

 

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Favourite Roots Albums of 2017, so far   Leave a comment

School ended two weeks ago, and I have been able to take the last week to relax, read, and listen—a great start to this summer. It appears that almost every online outlet has released their ‘best of 2017 (so far) list,’ so I figure I might as well get in on the action. If nothing else, hopefully someone reading will find an album they haven’t previously heard, and will be inspired to purchase it.

Americana, bluegrass, and their associated roots music are what I love, and I’ve been fortunate this year to listen to some amazing albums. Here is a list of my favourite fifteen roots albums of 2017 (so far)—and I found it difficult to narrow it down: I have no idea what I will do if this pace continues through the end of the year.

Whose albums didn’t make the list? Jason Isbell, Willie Nelson, Angeleena Presley, Jim Lauderdale, Fred Eaglesmith, Chuck Prophet, Amy Black, Slaid Cleaves, Jesse Waldman, Ray Davies, Jeffrey Halford…

Links are to my review or, where I haven’t reviewed, to the artist site.

  1. Mac WisemanMac Wiseman & Various Artists- I Sang the Song (Life of the Voice With A Heart) Yes, it is that good. My review.
  2. ronsexsmith_3Ron Sexsmith- The Last Rider Continuing a streak of excellence, Sexsmith’s 16th (!) album may just be his finest. Excellent songs, catchy melodies, accessible production…I’ve seldom been so proud to have shown support for a musician. A very strong album, just the latest in a series of memorable, standout recordings. The songs alternate between playful and introspective, catchy and maudlin. Layered, but not flamboyant. I am really glad that I bought the album, and even more glad that I took the time to make the trek to see Ron and the band in Edmonton. Surprised and disappointed that this one didn’t receive deserving Polaris Music Prize attention. “Radio” is my favourite song of the year.
  3. OtisOtis Gibbs- Mount Renraw I have been listening to Gibbs for a close to a decade, but never have I attended to this degree; a singer who was always on the periphery for me has eased himself onto my ever-narrowing list of favourites. My review.
  4. made_to_moveChris Jones & the Night Drivers- Made to Move Another excellent album from Chris Stuart & the Night Rangers. My review.
  5. CrowellRodney CrowellClose Ties With the passing of Guy Clark, Crowell heads to the front of the line of Texas songwriters. A masterful creation.
  6. demeyer_and_will_kimbrough-mokingbirdBrigitte DeMeyer and Will Kimbrough- Mockingbird Soul Largely taking the lead on alternating songs, they have produced an ideally balanced duet recording, with DeMeyer’s Side One Melissa Etheridge passionate huskiness pairing with Kimbrough’s restrained, telling honesty. Spirited, swampy, and Southern-country soul at times, in other places the songs more closely resemble what country music once was and could be again given a shot of 3614 Jackson Highway swagger. The arrangements are straight-forward rather than minimalistic, allowing the duet vocals prominence. The rest of my review.
  7. billBill Scorzari- Through These Waves Bill Scorzari lives where the Blues meets Texas Sam Baker. My review.
  8. gibson_2The Gibson Brothers- In the Ground Bringing their release total to thirteen, I believe, Eric and Leigh Gibson are at the top of the bluegrass world, a pinnacle at which they’ve resided for a decade. In The Ground may be their finest yet. An album of self-written songs, it isn’t like anything they’ve before accomplished. Still bluegrass, of course, but taking things to yet another level. My review.
  9. AMANDA-ANNE-PLATT-HONEYCUTTERS-ON-WALLAmanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters- Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters Platt is a strong songwriter and an impressive and memorable vocalist. She has that important capability to write in a variety of voices, making each genuine and authentic to the experiences conveyed. My review.
  10. richardRichard Laviolette- Taking the Long Way Home Earnest country records are few and far between. Ignoring the trappings of modern country recording, Laviolette has created a natural-sounding album, balancing the beauty and fidelity of old-time country and folk music (think Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson recordings with the refinement of original songs and expanded instrumentation) with the gravity of personal exploration and experience. My review.
  11. NellNell Robinson & Jim Nunally BandBaby, Let’s Take the Long Way Home One of my favourite guitarists and singers has teamed, over the course of four albums, with an impressive and natural vocalist, writing killer songs well-founded in the traditions of Americana.
  12. BIBB_MigrationBlues_livretEric Bibb- Migration Blues My review.
  13. brock zemanBrock Zeman- The Carnival Is Back in Town My review.
  14. lk-a-calm-sun-cover-webLesley Kernochan- A Calm Sun A bold, mature recording, free of gimmick and insincerity. My review.
  15. JebJeb Loy NicholsCountry Hustle Soulful country, as he has been doing for a very long time. Maybe my favourite album cover so far in 2017 (tho’ The Monkees Forever is giving it a run.)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              There you have them, my favourite roots albums of 2017, January to June.