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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1759

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Brushfire Stankgrass: Microclimates
by George Graham

(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/19/2014)

The jam band scene, once getting a lot of attention in the later 1990s, has settled down some to be a kind of ongoing niche genre, which has come to flurish on the festival scene. Many of those bands initially looked to the Grateful Dead for inspiration, but they soon became more eclectic, with groups under the broad category of jam bands running from bluesy to jazzy to bluegrass-influenced.

The latter has become an increasingly visible part of the scene. Perhaps inspired by the occasional bluegrass forays by the String Cheese Incident and bands like Leftover Salmon, bluegrass influenced jam bands are a presence with groups like Railroad Earth, Acoustic Syndicate and on the regional scene, Cabinet.

This week we have another interesting jam band inspired by bluegrass, but who turn out to be one of the most stylistically eclectic on the scene. They call themselves Brushfire Stankgrass, and their new second releases is called Microclimates.

Brushfire Stankgrass are from Asheville, North Carolina, and the band was founded by a pair of brothers, Ben and Will Saylor, who according to their bio, have been making music together since age three. Ben plays banjo and Will is mainly on guitar, though he also plays violin, keyboards and mandolin. The Saylor Brothers also write all the band's material. They are joined by bassist Bryan White and drummer Micah Thomas. Ben Saylor's banjo is usually prominent in their band's sound, and that naturally evokes bluegrass in most people's minds. The band does tend to let the bluegrass influence percolate up, but they are also as likely to turn to reggae, more conventional rock or hints of jazz or even art-rock for musical ingredients, and in true jam band tradition, there is plenty of space in their music for instrumental improvisation. And one can also hear the influence of others on the jam band scene including the Grateful Dead, String Cheese Incident and even the progressive-rock tendencies of Umphrey's McGee.

The album consists of all original music and the compositions reflect the eclecticism of the band, with some giving time to stretch out instrumentally, and other compositions much more lyric-based. They often include interesting shifts in rhythm. The album features a number of guest musicians, including a couple of horn players, a pianist, two violinists and a number of backing vocalists.

The CD opens with its title track, Microclimates which lyrically provides a definition of the scientific term. Stylistically, it's one of the most eclectic on the CD with an almost art-rock sound featuring an elaborate arrangement that then curves off into reggae for the verses. It's quite creative, though it's apparent from this and the other tracks that vocals are not the band's biggest strength. <<>>

Midnight on the Camp is a kind of classic bluegrass jam band track with some excellent acoustic picking by Will Saylor on the guitar. The two additional fiddle players join them on this piece. <<>>

More lyrically-oriented is a song called Lucid Dreams which is also an interesting stylistic mixture. <<>>

Evoking the kind of sophisticated hoe-down sound reminiscent of String Cheese Incident is a piece called Long Gone. The uptempo rave up combines both electric and acoustic instrumentation. <<>>

Another of the more interesting musical pastiches is a mostly instrumental composition called Down Time, which features the added horns players. <<>>

One would expect instrumental tracks from a group like this, and there is another piece that is mostly devoid of lyrics. Hippie Hornpipe is a great blend of a little Celtic influence with lots of jam-band improvisation. The are occasional interjections from a whole bunch of people, including apparently fans recorded at one of their gigs. <<>>

The band takes a somewhat different direction on a track called Proving which is another of the more lyrically-oriented songs, almost in the singer-songwriter kind of mode. <<>>

For a jam band, the tracks on this CD are relatively short, all but one under six minutes. But they do stretch out one piece that is also a bit of a departure for the group, Satisfied which is a slow blues. It turns out to be a highlight of the album.

Microclimates the new second release by the Asheville, North Carolina sibling-based band Brushfire Stankgrass, is a great addition to the bluegrass-influenced jam band scene. The band's stylistic eclecticism is impressive, as is their level of musicianship. The nearly hour-long CD spans a lot of styles, and ranges from sophisticated progressive-rock influenced pieces to more whimsical to almost singer-songwriter in direction. Their original material is first-rate both musically and often lyrically, which is not the usual case for a jam band.

Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. Fortunately, there's a bit more dynamic range than the typically heavily compressed CDs these days, and most of the acoustic instruments are well-recorded, but some instruments, such as the drums, lack some clarity.

The banjo is prominent in Brushfire Stankgrass' sound, and that links them with the growing bluegrass-oriented jam band scene. But this group is quite wide-ranging in their influences and their music has a lot of interesting things going for it. Microclimates is definitely a standout album on the jam band scene.

(c) Copyright 2014 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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