Thursday, August 11, 2011

Classes at Passim School of Music

In conjunction with some of my musical goals, I've been taking classes at the Passim Cultural Center in Cambridge, MA.  These classes are great for improving one's playing.  At $132 for 6 weeks, they're quite a bit cheaper than private lessons, and I actually find the group atmosphere motivates me to practice more between lessons so I don't fall behind my classmates.  Especially interesting are the ensemble classes, which throws you in a room with strangers and lets you experience being in a band, picking, learning, arranging, and playing tunes.

If you're interested in learning music or improving your current skills, you should check it out.  Find out more information here.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Live Review - 8/8/2011 Packway Handle Band at Cantab

Wow, the Packway Handle Band was awesome.  I'm not sure I've seen a live band with that much energy.  Their stage act was polished but also felt spontaneous and fresh.  The group had clearly worked hard on it, working in a close space and moving to crowd around the stereo condenser mics.  The visual machinations complemented the sound; for instance, during the choruses of the caustic "I'm Glad You've Got My Priorities So Straight," fiddle Andrew Heaton and mandolinist Michael Paynter would stick out a limb as straight as the title suggests.

The group plays a lot of offbeat covers - The Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" and Velvet Underground's "I'm Waiting For My Man" are two examples - and these were crowd pleasers, but the group's original tunes engaged the crowd as well.  Paynter eschewed his mando for a small drum kit on a couple occasions, and it fit the mood of those songs and added some variety.  Like Trampled By Turtles, the Packway Handle Band is pretty irreverent in their approach; the solos of Heaton, Paynter, banjo player Tom Baker and flatpicker Josh Erwin bordered on a punk aesthetic.  Another unique highlight was Paynter and bass player Zach McCoy beat-boxing at the beginning of a raucous version of the Violent Femmes' "American Music."  The Packway Handle Band does everything they can to make a live show a fun event, and it shows.

Opener Hickory Strings didn't have the same rapport with the audience despite incredible instrumental skill.  The trio of Geoff Brown (mandolin), Mark Whitaker (banjo), and Gian Pangaro (bass) played pretty instrumental tunes, often acoustic symphonies with multiple parts.  Brown and Whitaker are fine melodic players, and Pangaro showed great range, whether bowing in a cello-like feel, slapping a percussive backbeat, or keeping time in some sparse tunes.  But for all their skill, the group had a tough time engaging the crowd.  The Monday ambiance (bluegrass night is usually Tuesday) might have thrown things off; I'll have to check them out again on a more typical night.

Packway Handle Band official site
Hickory Strings official site

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Dolly Parton - The Grass Is Blue

Ten facts you probably don't know about Dolly Parton (but would learn if your lazy ass would just read her Wikipedia page):
  1. The fourth of twelve children, she helped raise some of her younger siblings as well as adopted the child of a deceased friend.
  2. She has been married to the same man for 45 years.
  3. She's done bluegrass covers of Collective Soul and Led Zeppelin songs.
  4. She wrote "I Will Always Love You," featured in the Whitney Houston / Kevin Costner movie The Bodyguard.
  5. The first cloned sheep was named after her.
  6. She's nicknamed "The Iron Butterfly" for her steely business mind.
  7. She's written 3,000 songs (not all recorded, obviously), starting at the age of 7.
  8. She plays at least 10 different instruments, including the piano, guitar, fiddle, and banjo.
  9. Dollywood, her theme park, attracts three million visitors to Parton's home town of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
  10. She has 25 number one singles and 41 top-10 country albums.
Why do I do this?  Because maybe, like me, you used to see Dolly Parton as a bubble-headed  blonde with big boobs.  She has been known to play up this misconception when convenient, or maybe just because it's fun.  But you underestimate Dolly at your peril: as a singer, songwriter, musician, woman, and human being, she is a force to be reckoned with.

So it's not too much of a surprise that in 1999, when she wanted to make a bluegrass album, she assembled an impeccable lineup: dobro legend Jerry Douglas, mandolin master Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs' banjo man Jimmy Mills, esteemed fiddler Stuart Duncan, amazing flatpicker Bryan Sutton, guest vocals from Alison Krauss, Claire Lynch, Rhonda Vincent, Patty Loveless ... it's an incredible group of talent.  The song choices are similarly super-powered; in addition to Parton's own compositions, there are tunes by Johnny Cash, Lester Flatt, Hazel Dickens, The Louvin Brothers, and (of all people) Billy Joel.

For all that talent, I put The Grass Is Blue in the "solid but not spectacular" category.  There aren't any real dud tracks here, but nothing standout either.  The musicianship on the album is predictably excellent, and Parton's powerful voice works well with the powerhouse band she's assembled, but there's nothing here I'm going to return to again and again.  It's just a tad over-produced, lacking some of the rough edges that appeal to me in roots music.

If you're a bluegrass fan, The Grass Is Blue is a solid album, full of top-notch performances.  If you're not a bluegrass fan, it might be a nice initiation into the genre; the boldness of the orchestration and the power of Parton's voice could appeal to those more familiar with rock music.  Whatever your bent, don't sell Dolly short - she's quite the lady.

Dolly Parton's official site

    Tuesday, August 2, 2011

    Revisiting the Ratings

    Rating System

    I haven't revisited the rating system since the beginning of this blog and I think it's time for me to do so.  The grade ratings have largely fallen in a narrow band, limiting their usefulness for readers.  In addition, my initial criteria - how replayable a tune is - has gradually gone out the window.  I'm not sure a one-dimensional grade or rating makes a lot of sense; some albums are awesome because they're super-fun (like Girl Talk's All Day), some albums are tough listens but very meaningful (like Elvis Perkins' Ash Wednesday).  Some great albums feature brilliant songwriting (like Josh Ritter's So Runs the World Away), and some are wonderful interpretations of old tunes and feature no new songs at all (like the recently-reviewed American Legacies).  How can I boil down all these factors into one grade, and what value does it have if I do?

    So what am I going to do?  Not totally sure yet, but I'll feel it out as I go along.  The next couple reviews probably will have no ratings.