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(Flying Frog Records 006 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/20/2003)
Jam bands continue to proliferate. While it's not hard to be a jam band, being good in the style really demands a level of musicianship more akin to jazz than rock. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of bad jam bands who noodle away at their instruments endlessly, boring anyone listening with a clear head. But the level of musicianship among the best of today's jam bands is really quite impressive. Groups like the String Cheese Incident combine outstanding playing with lots of originality, coming up with more interesting musical moments in one tune than than some jams bands of past generations could muster in a whole four-hour concert.
With the jam band scene proliferating, it's not surprising that the music is branching out in different directions. There are acoustic jam bands, all-instrumental groups, bands with various combinations of bluegrass instrumentation, and others with horns. There are those who rely on classic rock for their inspiration or and those who bring in more exotic world music influences.
This week, we have a new recording by group from the Atlanta area who bring their own twist -- a jam band that also serves up singer-songwriter style material with articulate lyrics. Their name is Bluestring, and their eponymous CD Bluestring, is actually their second recording, after a do-it-yourself effort a couple of years ago.
Bluestring is a quintet consisting of acoustic guitar, bass, drums, a separate percussionist and a sax player. They also bring in a bunch of added instrumentalists on their CD. Acoustic guitarist, lyricist and lead vocalist Clay Evans is the self-described singer-songwriter. The band was originally named Bluestring to imply bluegrass, since the first incarnation in 1998 was Evans with a bluegrass fiddler. But eventually, Evans recruited bassist Chuck Thomas with his funk influence, and jazz-schooled saxophonist Brad Thomas, who is no relation to Chuck, drummer Jason Jones and percussionist Nick Prince.
Bluestring have been touring up and down the East Coast for while, and one night in Florida, Butch Trucks, the Allman Brothers' drummer, heard them and recruited Bluestring for his jam-band oriented record label Flying Frog Records, which has released their new CD.
The blend of jamming with introspective lyrics has been dubbed "song-prov," and that's not a bad description. The musicianship is very respectable, and Evans' vocals have an appealingly honest roots-rock quality. The band's biggest strength is in its original material. Musically, they can jam, but the compositions themselves have lots of interesting twists and turns, including unconventional rhythms. And lyrically, Evans can address musical subjects that have not been sung about by jams bands, with using a literate vocabulary that's rare even among folkies.
The opening track epitomizes Bluestring's strengths. Pick Me Up features a odd, shifting rhythm, along with interesting, somewhat allegorical lyrics. <<>>
Also with the band's distinctive combination of jam-influenced music and folky lyrics is the song Scruples, a word that rarely seems to turn up in rock songs.
Lest one think that the band specializes in brooding lyrics, Second Wind is a very positive love song, set an infectious groove. <<>>
Bluestring can also get rather atmospheric in sound. One of the highlights of the album is River Ridge, with its lyrics celebrating a familiar place, while the musical setting opens starting with a spacey texture, complete with didgeridoo <<>> before settling into a laid-back groove for the body of the song. <<>>
Most jam bands really stretch out on their instrumental tracks. Bluestring does just the opposite. They include two instrumental pieces on their CD, and both are under two minutes in length. Tupelo is an almost trance-like sequence... <<>> while Za Zoo Impromptu is the closest thing to a straight jam that you will hear, though very compact. <<>>
The String Cheese Incident has led the way for jam bands to draw on Latin rhythms. Bluestring takes the plunge on a piece called Every Little Thing (I Think), whose lyrical strength helps make up for the fact that this kind of salsa beat is not quite Bluestring's natural musical domain. <<>>
One of the more stylistically eclectic pieces is Cacalaca, which can sound like a kind of African jig at times... <<>> before breaking into an all-out Gospel style rave-up at the end. <<>>
The CD concludes with another of its highlights, Rain (On the Inside), with its interesting words, waltz rhythm, and occasional hints of Dave Brubeck's Blue Rondo a la Turk. <<>>
The stereotypes of audiences for singer-songwriters and jam bands would seem to be mutually exclusive -- singer-songwriter fans are there to listen to the words and care little about the music; while jam band fans are supposed to like to groove on the music and care little about what is said, and would be just as happy with instrumental music. By that way of thinking, Bluestring ought to be a musical oxymoron. But the band, on their eponymous second album, shows that the two musical approaches can readily co-exist. It helps that they do both aspects well -- articulate lyrics, and stand-out musicianship, along with interesting compositions.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." The recording process was quite unobtrusive, capturing the band well without a lot of obvious overdubbing or needless special effects. The dynamic range is also decent for a rock band.
Instead of being a contradiction in styles, Bluestring, and what they called their "song-prov" style on their new CD show that each aspect can in a way overcome the weaknesses on the other -- a jam band that has something to say, and a singer-songwriter record that is fun to groove on. It's a worthwhile addition to the record collections of fans of both genres.
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