Classic bluegrass with modern twist see Toronto’s finest deliver best yet.
These past few years have found bluegrass music in the rudest of health with a new generation of artists picking up the baton and running in different directions while still remaining true to its roots and respecting its rich history. During the last few months we’ve had new albums from both Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle and now we have the return of Toronto’s finest bluegrass boys, The Slocan Ramblers, and the follow up to their Juno Award nominated album, ‘Queen City Jubilee’, with the Chris Stringer produced, ‘Up The Hill And Through The Fog‘. The pandemic has led to a four year gap between albums – however it is clear from the get go that the boys hadn’t spent the time simply twiddling their thumbs, but rather all the fingers, having each spent their quarantines woodshedding like crazy on their instruments. The new album does find a slight change in line up as bassist Alastair Whitehead has departed to be replaced by Charles James. while the three remaining original members, Adrian Gross on Mandolin and vocals, Darryl Poulson guitar and vocals, and Frank Evans Banjo and vocals, have delivered a set of songs that show both an adventurous side and a new found maturity to their writing. That maturity has in part been born from the sadness of both Gross and Poulson losing close family members during 2021, which has helped to infuse the songs with both an expressive sensitivity and intensity, while Stringers production skills have created a more expansive and varied soundscape, that enhances each songs individuality.
The album opener, ‘I Don’t Know’, sets the tone with a playful foot tapping beat and a vocal delivery reminiscent of early seventies Paul Simon at his most energetic, with some fine bass playing from new member James. What comes across immediately is the band’s new found willingness to explore the possibilities of the recording process and push the post production to its full potential, ultimately creating a broader, more colourful sound. The second number, ‘You Said Goodbye’, is in memory of Poulson’s brother who passed away last year, but rather than a slow sombre track the band play with a fire and purpose delivering a message of hope and reunification. The first single to be taken from the album and the only cover version, is a take on Tom Petty’s, ‘A Mind With A Heart Of Its Own’, with the band putting their own slant on this classic track using such instruments as slide banjo and mandola. The technical prowess of each individual member of the band is constantly in evidence through each song, although it is on the three instrumental tracks from the album that they collectively take their playing to an even higher level, with the clear joy of creating together bringing the very best results. Three tracks on the album written by Gross are inspired by the loss of his father, each dealing with different stages of grief and the acceptance that change is constant, while the final track, ‘Bring Me Down Low’, does anything but, travelling at the speed of a runaway train about to run out of track with the band musically bouncing off each other as they disappear over the horizon.
On, ‘Up The Hill And Through The Fog’, the Slocan Ramblers have taken the promise of their previous album and delivered something more. More adventurous, more expressive, and more expansive that clearly marks them out as one of the finest bluegrass acts on the current scene and should see them take their place at the top table.