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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1379

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Acoustic Syndicate: Long Way Round
by George Graham

(Sugar Hill 3993 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/27/2004)

Bluegrass-based music continues to become more eclectic and wide-ranging. In the 1980s, the so-called New Acoustic scene arose with people like David Grisman taking the instrumentation of bluegrass and turning to jazz and other non-traditional influences. More recently, with the rise of jam bands, groups like The String Cheese Incident are bringing together some bluegrass influence with more electric instrumentation and the jam band approach of extended instrumental improvisations. Last last week on this series, we reviewed a very eclectic new recording by the Chris Thile, mandolinist in one of the new bluegrass scene's bright lights, the band Nickel Creek. It was anything but purist bluegrass.

This week we have the new recording by what I suppose could be called another jam-grass band, Acoustic Syndicate. The CD is called Long Way Round.

North Carolina-based Acoustic Syndicate has been around since the early 1990s as a band, but three of its founding members are family: guitarist and principal songwriter Steve McMurry, and his cousins Bryon McMurry, who specializes in banjo, and Bryon's brother Fritz McMurry, who plays drums and percussion. They have been joined on bass by Jay Sanders for some years now. Although Bryon McMurry plays banjo and the instrumentation is most often in keeping with the band's name, acoustic, the Acoustic Syndicate's members grew up on alternative rock and artists like the Police, so they have no qualms about drawing on those influences in their music. However, their family background also includes singing old traditional songs and hymns at gatherings. So their sound has always been an interesting amalgam of influences, combined with first-rate musicianship and lyrically strong songwriting.

Their new CD marks a further evolution in Acoustic Syndicate's sound, with the addition of a full-time sax player, Jeremy Saunders, making them about the third national group, besides Béla Fleck's Flecktones and Tony Trischka's band to employ both banjo and sax in the lineup. For this CD, Acoustic Syndicate also enlisted as producer a significant figure on the roots rock scene, Lloyd Maines, who is also father to Dixie Chick Natalie Maines. They recorded their CD in an improvised studio in a disused church in rural North Carolina, not far from where they live, and the McMurrys still occasionally work their on large family farm. In their biography, the McMurrys say that they employed migrant workers from the Caribbean and Latin America on their farm, so they were exposed to world music at an early age, and that has been evident in their music for some years now.

The band set out to get a more electric, energetic sound on Long Way Round, which they said was intended to approximate more closely their live performances. They also added some blues and funk influences to their already wide-ranging mix. The result is a very satisfying, well-conceived and executed recording that combines some jam-band sensibility, some folk and bluegrass undercurrents, first-rate musicianship and surprisingly literate and thoughtful lyrics.

The generous 64-minute CD opens with its title song, Long Way Round, the only piece not written by one of the members. In this case it's by Nashville songwriter Larry Keel. One of the guest musicians on the CD, Mars Farris, adds the bluesy-sounding Dobro to the otherwise acoustic rock sound of the band. The piece is a strong one, though the band's own material can reach greater heights. <<>>

More typical of the CD is the Bryon McMurry song Talk, whose lyrics encourage communication among people. Here the sound gets decidedly rockier with Farris adding the electric guitar, though Bryon McMurry also plugs in his banjo. <<>>

Some of the McMurry family's tropical influence comes out on one of the CD's highlight tracks, Hypocrite Smile, by Steve McMurry, which combines lots of influences with some great lyrics. <<>>

Another of the tracks that typifies the band's innate eclecticism is They Come This Way, which can alternate between a funky beat and a bluegrass sound, while the worthwhile lyrics advise us to appreciate the people in our lives while they are still around. <<>>

The group dedicates a song to the late folksinger and songwriter John Hartford. The Pilot refers to Hartford's other passion, piloting a Mississippi riverboat. It's a nicely done tribute, and about as close to folk music as you'll find on this CD. <<>>

Another highlight of Long Way Round is a Steve McMurry song Been There Again, about two friends, one of whom became a slacker, and other an overachiever. It's written from the standpoint of the underachiever. <<>>

Another song about friendships is Bound by Bryon McMurry. It celebrates the relationship of long-time friends who follow different paths but remain loyal friends. <<>>

Perhaps the most unusual lyrics on the CD come on a song called Just As It Happened, written from the standpoint of someone who had been attacked and stabbed by an intruder at a family gathering. It leaves us wondering if it was a bad dream or if the victim were wishing it were. <<>>

Long Way Round, the latest CD by the decade-old North Carolina-based band Acoustic Syndicate is another worthwhile recording by a band who loves to mix their influences. With the addition of a sax player and their conscious decision to increase the energy level of this release over their previous ones, almost no one can accuse them be being a traditional bluegrass band, and they never pretended to be one. The group also has in its assets column articulate, literate lyrics, which are rare in the world of jam bands. The musicianship is first rate, as are the musically interesting compositions. About the only thing one might quibble with are the vocal harmonies, which are generally good, but not quite at the level of some among bluegrass bands. But the performances are great, as is the material.

Sonically, we'll give the CD an A-minus. The mix captures all the instrumental sounds well, though the recording venue in an old church is not readily apparent. As is typical these days, there is a lot of dynamics compression on the recording, making it more or less the same loud volume throughout, but with a rockier sound to his CD, that's less of a problem than with more acoustic music.

Bluegrass-influenced jam bands are becoming increasingly common these days, but few bring the broad spectrum of musical interests together as skillfully as Acoustic Syndicate.

(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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