They may be grassicana but Grain Thief also have old-time chops as well
Grassicana was first coined in 2017 to cover music that was influenced by bluegrass and its instrumentation but that also included elements from the wider americana genre, and though they released their first EP in 2015, the term fits Boston quintet Grain Thief perfectly. Grain Thief are Patrick Mulroy, guitar and vocals, Zach Meyer, mandolin and vocals, Michael Harmon, bass and vocals, Tom Farrell, resonator guitar, and Alex Barstow, fiddle, and up to now, they have certainly been pushing at the boundaries of bluegrass and americana. However, for ‘Something Sour, Something Sweet’ they take a more backward look at the influences that brought them together as a band in the first place and they have recorded an album of mostly instrumental fiddle tunes, with a couple of archive recordings added for good measure. The tracks were recorded live at bassist Michael Harmon’s home studio with the band swopping instruments around a single microphone and with minimal overdubs. The band have said they wanted to record ‘Something Sour, Something Sweet’ because while old-time music has always been important to the band, their discography didn’t until now, reflect this. I also suspect the pandemic was an enabler as well.
The album opens with ‘Sarah Armstrong’s Paddy On The Turnpike which takes us back to the Celtic origins of old-time music. Interestingly the Dillards recorded a version on 1965’s ‘Pickin & Fiddlin’ which was their two-finger riposte to the then traditionalists who had been giving them a hard time up to that point. It is clear that Grain Thief also have the traditional chops to deliver this music straight as well. ‘Grub Springs’ and ‘Katy Did’ maintain the old-time vibe before Grain Thief shares a vocal version of Ted Hawkins’ Sorry You’re Sick’. Our own Andy Kershaw helped busker Ted Hawkins to establish a career in Europe in the ‘80s with his mix of folk, blues, and soul before he returned to the life of a Venice Beach street musician in the ‘90s, and Grain Thief gives an old-time feel to this more modern folk tune. With ‘Fairwell To Trion’ we are in 19th Century Alabama with a tune inspired by a mill worker who lost their job in a local mill in Trion, Georgia, and flautist Anh Phung of Twisted Pine makes a guest appearance and adds variety. From Alabama, we move to Kentucky for ‘Last Of Harris’, which belongs to the age-old tradition of naming tunes after executed or dead prisoners. The fiddle is a key instrument in Cajun music and ‘Chips and Williams’ goes back to the Metis culture of Canada and its shared history with the Arcadians of Louisiana. We are back to Kentucky for ‘Old Aunt Jenny with her Nightcap on’ and then it is on to ‘Gentleman From Virginia’ which is a North Carolina tune that is the most Appalachian sounding tune on the record. ‘Something Sour, Something Sweet’ ends with an a cappella version of ‘The Auld Triangle’, a tune popularised by Ireland’s The Dubliners.
Grain Thief may have taken the opportunity offered by the pandemic to burnish their old-time musical skills and they certainly provide the evidence to silence any traditionalist naysayers, and while the tunes may be traditional, the Grain Thief character is still much in evidence. While the casual fan may find a largely instrumental album of fiddle tunes a bit much, no matter how lively and well-played they may be, it is certain that hearing this music live at a festival will definitely get traditionalist toes tapping, and the tie-dyers will be swirling. This may be a diversion in the band’s discography, a question of crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s as to their old-time capability, but it is non the less enjoyable for that.
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