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The Graham Album Review #2188

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Armchair Boogie: Hard Times and Deadlines

(Independent Release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/28/2024)

The jam band scene has often borrowed some influence from the bluegrass world. Even going back to the Grateful Dead, who would occasionally do acoustic sets with Jerry Garcia on banjo. Over the years, going back to the early 1980s, the pioneering band New Grass Revival would get into instrumental improvisations. The String Cheese Incident often features a mandolin, and more recently, Railroad Earth has been drawing on bluegrass influence. The epitome of the “jam-grass” scene has been Leftover Salmon for whom bluegrass and jamming are integral parts of their sound.

This week, we have another jam-grass group, called Armchair Boogie, who captures the spirit of the music, but does it with fairly succinct tunes on their new album called Hard Times & Deadlines.

Armchair Boogie was formed by banjo player Augie Dougherty and guitarist Ben Majeska in 2015 in the college town of Stephen’s Point, Wisconsin. Before long they were joined by bassist Eli Frieders and less conventionally for a bluegrass band, a drummer, Denzel Connors. After moving to Madison, Wisconsin, Armchair Boogie released their first album in 2018, and got crowd-funding for a second album called What Does Time Care? in 2019.

Now they are out with Hard Times & Deadlines and Armchair Boogie continues their good time sound with Dougherty’s prominent banjo underscoring the bluegrass element, but the drums and bass adding a rock sensibility. Like many recent recordings, the pandemic played a part in the making of the album, with Dougerty and Majeska penning songs separately, and only later bringing in the rest of the band. But they relate that once that happened, it was a collaborative process. At times they wax philosophical lyrically, considering, as their publicist says, the fact that they were entering their late twenties with life’s circumstances changing along with responsibilities and thinking about the future, and the hand that life has dealt you.

While for most of the album the band is self contained, there are some guests running from a bluegrass fiddle player to a funky horn section – hardly a traditional bluegrass sound, but it works well from a jam band perspective.

The album opens with essentially its title track, Hard Times by banjo man Dougherty that takes up the subject of dealing with life’s circumstances. <<>>

One of the most upbeat tunes on the album in terms of its musical arrangement is a track called Livin’ but lyrically, it’s quite another thing. <<>>

One of the songs by guitarist Majeska is Gone in a Day, another bit of philosophizing in a hoedown setting. <<>>

Also by Majeska is a song called Skippin’ Town about a fugitive, literal or figurative, while the arrangement mixes the bluegrass influence with a kind of rock singer-songwriter context. <<>>

A song called You’ve Been Hurt, by Augie Dougherty is one of the more positive on the album lyrically, in the sense that the protagonist in the song offers a sympathetic shoulder to cry on, while the band sounds a little more folky. <<>>

The track with the horn arrangement is called Low Down Time. Despite what seems like a stylistic incongruity, it’s one of the best on the album, with the banjo sounding good in a funky context. <<>>

One of the more interesting tracks lyrically is Empty Pools which seems to be about getting away from the world in some solitude, while the band keeps it upbeat. <<>>

The album closes with another bit of reflection on life. The song Boneyard provides a kind of honky tonk approach to finding one’s self and identity. <<>>

Hard Times & Deadlines, the new release from the Wisconsin based jam-grass band Armchair Boogie is an enjoyable album that combines banjo dominated bluegrass influence with rock and jam band sensibility. What makes it more interesting, is that their songs often tend toward philosophical lyrics. Despite their sound, the one thing this album does not have is extended jams, which would seem natural for a group like this, but instead there are no tracks longer than four minutes on the album. In many ways their succinctness is an asset, as they avoid the lengthy jams that sometimes can get tedious. Perhaps the band jams stage more.

Our grade for audio quality is close to an “A.” The general sound is rather clean, though the ubiquitous bugaboo of volume compression to crank up the loudness artificially, detracts from the music’s dynamics.

Bluegrass influence is increasingly apparent on the jam band scene. And though they don’t jam a lot on their new album, Armchair Boogie is a worthy contender on the jam-grass scene.

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