Now Playing: The Dirty Grass Players

Baltimore-based string band the Dirty Grass Players began life inauspiciously, as the product of a besotted weekly jam session involving a rotating gaggle of long-standing Charm City friends. Three years later and TDGP is a fully-realized bluegrass outfit, having authored one fine full-length release in the form of last year’s self-titled effort, and having been recognized in 2016 as the city’s best bluegrass band.

“We started as just a group of friends getting together on Monday evening, drinking beer, grilling food and playing bluegrass,” says guitarist Ben Kolakowski. “It slowly just got more and more serious, and the next thing you know, we’re playing bluegrass festivals.”

They’re an unlikely bunch on the face of it — Kolakowski had played jazz and heavy metal prior to the band’s inception; bassist Josh Ballard played rock ‘n’ roll; Mandolin player Ryan Rogers is a former jazz guitar performance major. “How some of us ended up in a band like this is kind of a mystery, “Kolakowski chortles.

What they all shared, however, was the instrumental chops necessary to handle the genre’s dizzying tempos and complex single-note lines. “It is a very demanding music,” Kolakowski says. “Tony Rice once said that most bluegrass players could handle playing jazz, but not every jazz instrumentalist could handle playing bluegrass. It’s definitely a player’s genre.”

But bluegrass bands with virtuosic principals aren’t difficult to come by, given that a certain level of technical derring-do is prerequisite to the form. One thing that separates the Dirty Grass Players from other fleet-fingered flat-picking collectives is the group’s penchant for perfectly-executed harmonies. Theirs is an especially potent, all-male vocal alchemy, making for a sound that’s sweeter by half than the sum of its parts.

“We spend a lot of time making sure the harmonies sound good, that they’re well-arranged, that everybody is singing the right part,” Kolakowski enthuses. “It’s actually a lot of fun. I wasn’t much of a singer before now. But our banjo player (Alex Berman) has a great ear, and he arranges the vocals. He does a great job of getting the best out of us.”

Like most other musical forms, bluegrass has its factions, subgenres that diverge in different ways from the tropes established by genre godfather Bill Monroe, and the mountain musicians who preceded him — traditional and progressive bluegrass, newgrass, jam grass, neo-traditional and gospel. The Players are aswim somewhere in the middle of it all, being neither slavishly reverent nor unwilling to observe the particulars of tradition when the time and the venue are right.

According to Kolakowski, he and his ‘mates are happy to navigate the easements between subgenres, with the result that the Dirty Grass Players can take the stage — and flourish — in a variety of contexts and clubs. “We try to bridge the gaps in the world of bluegrass; we don’t want to be stranded in one camp,” Kolakowski says.

“It’s cool to be able to play at a traditional bluegrass festival, and then go and play at a jam band festival. We straddle jam grass, bluegrass, and maybe stuff that infringes on jazz a little bit. We like to do things that challenge us, that make us better as musicians and as a band. We’re right where we want to be.”

The Dirty Grass Players will play Preservation Pub Wednesday, June 27 at 10 p.m.

Now Playing: Poor Eliza

Before she was a singer-songwriter and leader of her own band, Poor Eliza frontwoman Jane Park spent years standing in the shadow of other crooners, playing her first instrument — violin — in a handful of other Boston-area bands.

“I was in bands with some good songwriters, and I got inspired by what they were doing,” says Park, who struck out on her own some 10 years ago. “Once I tried it, it felt like a natural step. And it felt good, so I kept doing it.”

Soon thereafter, a friend coaxed her into playing a local open mic. From there, Park tells that she slowly began playing more often under her own name. And in 2009, she came full circle, starting her own project — the outfit that would become Poor Eliza — with a diverse group of musicians hailing from various other Beantown bands.

“As a violinist, I have a lot of classical training, but it had never occurred to me up until that point to write like a songwriter,” Park says of her musical transformation. “I had already been playing guitar for a while when I started writing songs, but I wasn’t very good at it. But I enjoyed it. It was low-pressure for me; I didn’t feel the need to be so technically perfect, which meant I had more fun.

“When I started writing songs, what came out was kind of folk-pop-ish — really simple, four-chord songs. I’ve always appreciated the folk sensibility, a songwriter with an acoustic guitar. And I had to keep it pretty simple, because I wasn’t a good enough guitar player to do anything else.”

Park has come a long way as a guitar player in the years since — she now earns the bulk of her income as a teacher of guitar as well as violin. She’s come a long way as a bandleader as well. Poor Eliza recently authored “Ghost Town,” their second release, an accomplished five-song EP of refined modern folk cross-bred with clear-eyed indie rock.

Park says she likes writing songs about life’s less-heralded moments, moments that may seem unexceptional in the here and now, yet take on a winsome significance in the wisdom of hindsight. Her voice is the perfect vehicle for the subject matter– a sonorous alto that, its crystalline tonal purity notwithstanding, deftly navigates the more complicated impulses that reside at the midpoint of the emotional spectrum, yet is still capable of hitting passionate peaks should the moment arise.

“I think there’s something beautiful and special about the quieter moments in our lives, and the truth is that the majority of most of our lives are uneventful,” she says. “My favorite times in my life have been when nothing was really happening. Maybe it’s because I’m not expecting anything, and any time you’re not expecting anything, you can either come across something unexpectedly great, or you can just appreciate the beauty of the moment, the calm of it. In those moments, I feel like you’re very receptive to whatever life has to offer.”

Park says she’s only now looking to expand Poor Eliza’s sphere of influence, by taking to the road and exploring the territory outside the greater Boston area. Like much of her musical career, it’s been a gradual step, slow in the offing. In the meantime, Park says her songwriting has begun to mature, and that her confidence in the band’s material has begun to keep pace with the assuredness she feels with respect to her stage presence and her guitar chops. “I think the music I wrote when I first started was much simpler,” she says. “It was folk music, whereas now I incorporate more styles — rock, punk, indie.

“Although I still like to do some folky things, I would describe my music as more eclectic now. At the same time, I feel like I’m still searching for something. I’m still searching for a sound I can call my own, my own style.”

Poor Eliza will play Preservation Pub Thursday, June 28 at 10 p.m.

 

 

Now Playing: Amigo

Over the course of their roughly seven-year career, Charlotte four-piece Amigo outfit have largely been recognized as an Americana band, and the label isn’t entirely off base. Their two full-length album releases — this year’s “And Friends” and 2013’s “Might Could” — are rife with stripped-down, visceral roots rock, harmony-laden electric folk, and the kind of country music that went out of vogue in Nashville at roughly the same time that Garth Brooks purchased his first cowboy hat.

But there are other, more diabolical forces at work in the mechanics of Amigo’s sound — the Ramones, the Minutemen, and even ’90s-era power popsters Teenage Fanclub are listed among the band’s influences on the Amigo Facebook page, right alongside the likes of Gram Parsons, The Band and CCR. And so it is that on record, those rogue rock and punk elements weave in and out of the otherwise pastoral mix, somehow blending with Amigo’s alt-country side in a way that comes off as not only coherent but inexorable, creating songs that are propelled by a strangely seamless hybrid of headlong punkish thrust and earthy, shit-kicking grooves.

For his part, singer, guitarist and principle songwriter Slade Baird says he was weaned on the Washington, D.C. hardcore of Minor Threat and Fugazi, and that it was only later that he came to fall in love with alt-country archetypes like Parsons and Townes Van Zandt.

“We get lumped into this thing called ‘Americana,’ but when I listen to bands that define that sound, we don’t sound anything like most of them,” says Amigo guitarist Slade Baird. “Sometimes that makes me nervous, and sometimes I think it’s cool. It means that at very least, we have our own thing going on.”

Amigo got its start around 2011, when longtime friends Baird, singer-bassist Thomas Alverson, and drummer Adam Phillips started playing out in Charlotte under the moniker Old Milwaukee, in honor of the members’ favorite discount swill. After a couple of years playing for beer at local watering hole Snug Harbor, the band decided to take the party outside Charlotte, and changed their name to Amigo to avoid the likely legal hassle.

By way of explanation, Baird tells that “Amigo” met three criterion set forth by he and his ‘mates prior to choosing their new name — “It puts us first in the record bin, it has a positive connotation, and it’s something sort of exotic and not-so-obvious, divorced from our actual situation,” Baird says, chuckling a little.

Maybe the trio didn’t realize it at the time, but the name held a larger significance as well. “The three of us had been friends going back way before the band,” he says. “Whenever we’ve tried to add a member through a Craigslist ad, it has backfired epically. Having people we know — people we hold as friends — has helped make the band what it is. So many bands fall apart because they can’t stand each other. But for us, the music is only second place; the relationships come first.”

Maybe that chemistry is the magic element that explains the band’s penchant for surprisingly sweet harmonies, which are deployed often, especially on folkier numbers. “Those harmonies, they just come naturally to Adam and Thomas when they sing together; they’re like little angels when they sing,” Baird says, laughing again. “They get up on the mic together side by side and something special happens. If we bring in a new song, they’ll have harmonies worked out for it in a matter of minutes. And those will probably be the final harmonies when we get around to recording the song.”

Having just released their second platter — the aforementioned “And Friends” — Amigo have also added a fourth member — keyboardist Molly Poe — and gathered a new head of steam. Though the new record is arguably less indebted to the rock influences that infused “Might Could” and the 2016 single release “Kristmas in the Kremlin” — a Son-Volt-cum-Socia-D holiday rave-up — Baird says the band retains its punk-rock spirit, if not so much of the genre’s propulsive sound.

“As a band, we I think we have more confidence now that we did at the start,” Baird says. “We’re not afraid to make bold moves, or to bring something new to the table. We probably have more of a punk-rock attitude than we did when started, more devil-may-care, even though it doesn’t expressly sound that way on record.”

Amigo will play Preservation Pub Saturday, June 30 at 10 p.m.

 

 

 

Now Playing: Sirius.B


Sporting a curious menagerie of instruments including kazoos, accordions, and charangos to supplement the standard-issue guitar-bass-and-drums rock band format, Asheville, N.C. eight-piece Sirius.B have spent the last 12 years reinterpreting the jazz and folk of Eastern Europe from an American perspective, performing gypsy music with the speed an energy of rock ‘n’ roll.

Guitarist Xavier Ferdon relates that the band began in 2006 with himself, singer Pancho Bond, and a drummer who has since moved on. With his close friend Bond living in New York, Ferdon felt an urge to start something new. He convinced Bond to move back to North Carolina, and the two men began assembling members for their fledgling project.

Ferdon, in the meantime, had been enamored of the 2005 film “Everything Is Illuminated,” about a young Jewish man who travels to the Ukraine in search of his ancestors; the soundtrack, in particular, grabbed Ferdon’s attention, with music from Russian folk artist Arkady Severny and American gypsy-punk band Gogal Bordello. “I heard the music in that film, and it got me interested in playing those styles of music,” he says. “It just appealed to me in some way; I loved it.

“When (Bond) and I agreed to start the band, we didn’t really discuss what it would be, but we quickly realized that this was what we wanted to do — something along the lines of the Eastern European and gypsy stuff. He already had a handful of lyrics written, and it was just a matter of setting those lyrics to that style of music.”

Sirius.B rapidly gained new members, and began playing shows in Asheville, but Ferdon maintains that the outfit didn’t truly take flight until the addition of cellist Franklin Keel a year or so in. “Franklin is a genius musically, and with him, the music really got interesting,” he says. “Before Franklin, I really don’t feel the band was quite there yet.”

For his part, Keel was impressed with Sirius.B even before he signed on. “I remember going to one of their shows before I had joined the band, hearing them play,” he says. “I’d never heard anything quite like it before. “Lots of things stood out to me, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what those things were. It was such a unique and unusual sound.”

Apparently, Keel was a quick study, because Ferdon says his writing contributions to the Sirius.B repertoire immediately made the band’s music richer and more complex.

“We have grown more adventurous in the way we structure songs and harmonies,” Keel admits. “The older songs have much simpler chord structures. The newer ones have more sections; they’re more harmonically daring.”

Keel adds that the music’s complexity makes live performance all the more difficult, as he and his ‘mates seek to balance technical derring-do with the kind of ebullient showmanship Sirius.B crowds have come to expect from the notoriously raucous octet.

“With each album we’ve done, we’ve had a conversation about how to recreate the music live,” Keel says. “Which is next to impossible to do. But we keep getting closer. But at our shows, we’re loud and high-energy, and our audiences have a hard time sitting still. We’ve done shows at theaters before, and people still weren’t able to stay in their seats.’

“People also tend to drink a lot at our shows, and there’s always a storm of drunk people dancing up front,” Ferdon adds. “We definitely appeal to a beer-drinking crowd.”

Sirius.B will play Preservation Pub Saturday, June 9 at 10 p.m.

 

Now Playing: Misnomer

Athens, Ga.-based fusion outfit Misnomer began life under the moniker Mister Tie Dye some two years ago, but bass trombonist Paul Nelson tells that members voted in a name change in recent months to better reflect the unit’s genre-blending, mix-and-match approach to composition.

“We wanted to have a name that represents the music better,” says Nelson. “‘Misnomer’ means ‘improperly named.’ We have nine and sometimes 10 people on stage, and eight who write music. That’s eight people eight different backgrounds and influences. So we have a really difficult time giving people one phrase that accurately describes our sound. We like to say that what we play is our music.”

While Nelson’s assessment is generally on point — Misnomer routinely delve into funk, rock, world beat, classical and even hip hop on record and in live performance — it’s also true that the band is firmly grounded in jazz and jazz fusion, most of its members having come together in the University of Georgia jazz ensemble around 2016.

Nelson says he and a handful of other ensemble students decided to make a go of it with a proper band, and seek out nightclub gigs around Athens. From nine members, they mustered three original compositions, and added a cover song from Richmond, Va. horn outfit the No B.S. Brass Band. Nelson says their first rehearsal was almost revelatory; within a month, members of the fledgling band had written another 12 songs and added them to the budding Tie Dye/Misnomer repertoire.

“A lot of what we play is inspired by something our jazz band teacher said to us,” Nelson says. “He told us that to be a ‘hirable’ working musician, you need to be able to play anything. So we set out to create a sort of quasi-jazz and fusion that would also incorporate all of these other influences.”

That being said, two key members of Misnomer hail from outside the academic world. Impressive chops notwithstanding, alto saxophonist Jose Moran and tenor sax player Chandler Greer are self-taught, and contributed most of the original music the band essayed at that tentative first rehearsal. Nelson says there’s something organic in the way Greer and Moran approach their instruments, a fluid, instinctive quality that can’t be taught in a classroom or written down on a piece of paper. He adds that the dynamic created by infusing the other members’ more formal approach to playing and writing music with the streetwise instincts of Greer and Moran is one of the elements that sets Misnomer apart from other like-minded fusion-oriented outfits.

“We’ve got eight guys who have music degrees, and grew up playing in orchestra, wind ensemble, jazz band, all of that. Then we have two guys who learned a different way, and that’s what makes the group what it is,” he says. “For instance, Chandler can play by ear so well. And while the rest of us can, too, there was a steep learning curve. He and Jose play from the heart a little better than the rest of us. As academic musicians, there’s so much we can learn from those guys.”

The men of Misnomer like to take occasional forays into the realms of hip hop and R&B — Nelson says several members of the band count Outkast as a prime influence, and the group often hosts local Atlanta singers and rappers both in the studio and on stage; check out the band’s video for “New World” featuring the smooth, sweet vocal of songstress Adriana “Dri” Thomas for a sample of such. But their fondness for vocal music notwithstanding, Nelson says the band will likely remain a primarily instrumental project for the foreseeable future.

“We have an interest in vocal collaborations,” Nelson says. “If the opportunity arises to one day take one on the road, we might do that. But right now, having nine or 10 guys on stage on any given night is all we can handle. The stars would have to align for that to change.”

Misnomer will play Preservation Pub Monday, June 11 at 10 p.m.