Article by Timothy Lynch
10. Honey Island Swamp Band, Good To You – It’s the fall of 2005, and a group of New Orleans musicians are stuck in San Francisco for months on end. Hurricane Katrina has ravaged their city, unleashing disastrous floods. They are given a weekly jam session to sustain themselves at the closest thing to a NOLA club in the Bay Area, The Boom Boom Room. Magic ensues. They soon realize that they are not just jamming and waiting, they are a band. Fast forward to 2010, and they are now considered the best emerging group in New Orleans. From the Crescent City funk of “Chocolate Cake” to the outlaw Americana of “300 Pounds” and beyond, Honey Island covers many different musical territories equally well. What this CD lacks in a big budget production, it more than makes up for in raw talent and energy.
9. Great American Taxi, Reckless Habits – Vince Herman didn’t just want a vehicle for himself after Leftover Salmon went into semi-retirement, he wanted a band, one that could play “Americana without borders.” He’s got exactly that in Great American Taxi. Sure, Herman’s songs stand out on the record at first listen. “One of These Days” could have been written by John Hartford, but is a Herman original. The harder-edged “Unpromised Land” also shines, as does “Good Night to Boogie.” But keyboardist Chad Staehly, guitarist Jim Lewin, drummer Chris Sheldon and bassist Edwin Hurwitz, all contribute equally here, channeling sounds that are reminiscent of Little Feat, The Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The New Riders of the Purple Sage, Old & In The Way, and more contemporary acts like Wilco, without sounding exactly like any one of them. Expertly produced by Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone, who also lends his fiddle to the project, Taxi’s honed-on-the-road sound is well captured here. And who doesn’t need the delightful and irreverent ode “Fuzzy Little Hippie Girl” in their collection?
8. Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, Legacy – He became one of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys back in 1964, and in the years since Peter Rowan has explored all kinds of music from rock to Tex-Mex and country to reggae. But bluegrass remains his first love. A superb singer, songwriter, and guitar picker, Rowan’s bluegrass band includes veterans Jody Stecher on mandolin and vocals, Keith Little on banjo and vocals, and Paul Knight on bass and vocals. These players have well over a century of combined experience playing and recording bluegrass and it shows. They recognize that bluegrass is a set of vocal styles as well as expert picking. But while Rowan respects tradition, he has never been one to be bound by it. One of the best songs on this disc, “Across the Rolling Hills,” features a Tibetan Buddhist chant in the lyrics, for example. This record, which features guest spots from acoustic music legends Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, and Tim O’Brien — and was excellently produced by Compass Records co-founder and banjo picker Allison Brown — is solid and completely satisfying from start to finish.
7. 7 Walkers, 7 Walkers – “A love letter to New Orleans,” is the way 7 Walkers drummer (who you know from a little band called Grateful Dead) Bill Kreutzmann describes this disc. In it, NOLA funk meets San Francisco psychedelia by way of Austin, where every form of American music meets. The words were composed by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who clearly spent a lot of time in Louisiana. Guitarist and singer Papa Mali (an Austin music legend who was born and raised in Louisiana) insists that with a true poet’s eye, Hunter remembers details about the state that even many locals miss. Mali wrote the majority of the music here, and is also the group’s producer. As producer he imbued the record with deep textures, and a remarkable layering of sounds to produce something utterly unique. It is a dark and hauntingly beautiful collection. Though you may not realize it on first listen, the disc also contains the single best love song of the year in “Evangeline”. It is an addictive record, getting inside you a little deeper with successive listen. The bass on the disc was mostly played by Tea Leaf Green’s Reed Mathis, but when he returned to his primary band Papa Mali recruited legendary Meters bassist George Porter, Jr. to take that slot in 7 Walkers full time. The instrumental “Chingo” features Porter on bass, and really reveals where this band is headed sonically. Multi-instrumentalist and engineer Matt Hubbard (a veteran of Willie Nelson projects, among other things), rounds out this quartet on keyboards, trombone, harmonica, vocals and more.
6. Keller & The Keels, Thief – Known as a one man band, Keller Williams is deeply musical and talented on anynumber of instruments. But first and foremost he is an acoustic guitarist, and an inventive one at that. North Carolina’s husband and wife team Larry and Jenny Keel are also deeply musical. Jenny lays down rock solid bluegrass bass lines, while Larry – and I do not say this lightly or flippantly – is as good a picker as the one and only Tony Rice. Seriously, Larry Keel’s lightning fast runs are marked by that kind of precision and tone. Put them together and you get far more than the sum of the parts, something more algorithmic and exponential is going in this equation. What is missing in this description so far is just how fun and funny this unit can be. Yes, this album is a bluegrass album of all cover songs (hence the title), but you can’t help but smile when hearing the grassed-up version of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab,” or realize they are covering such esteemed bluegrass bands as the Butthole Surfers (“Pepper”), Marcy Playground (“Sex and Candy”), and Cracker (“Teen Angst”). Bookended by a pair of excellent Kris Kristofersen tunes, this roots romp has something for everyone.
5. Jim Lauderdale, Patchwork River – If there is a lyricist of the year, it is the Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter, who co-wrote this entire collection with country and bluegrass master Jim Lauderdale. Their second full CD together (another is in the works, thankfully), Lauderdale and Hunter are excellent foils for each other’s talents. It is American roots music, but there is a mildly psychedelic glow to the whole affair. Lauderdale may not have the kind of name recognition he deserves, but to those in the know he is adored as a singer and song crafter. He has his way with melody the way Hunter has his with mixed metaphors, and his voice (like his demeanor) is honey sweet. A deeply American collection of rootsy Americana rock and balladry (as Blair Jackson has pointed out, the ground covered in these originals runs from south Florida to Memphis to Louisville to New York City to El Dorado), this album features love songs, road tunes and reflections on impermanence, among other things, in a collection without any weak spots.
4. Patty Griffin, Downtown Church – Recorded, as the name implies, in a downtown Nashville church, this is predominantly, though not exclusively, a gospel record. Ain’t no reason to let that scare you away, there is nothing the slightest bit preachy or doctrinaire about it. It is spiritual music in the widest possible sense of that term. You certainly don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy what is happening here, just someone who loves American music. “It sounds like the soundtrack to a spiritual awakening,” an NPR reviewer wrote, and Griffin insists she is not a card-carrying member of any religion, but is exploring some her feelings about the whole idea of religion. There are gospel standards (“Wade in the Water,”), and gospel tales popularized by many a rock and blues artist (“If I Had My Way”), along with a pair of Griffin originals, but there’s also R&B (the Leiber & Stoller gem, “I Smell a Rat”). Griffin enlisted the help of Nashville’s A-List in making the disc: Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, and gospel greats Regina and Ann McCrary, and it paid off handsomely.
3. Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Backatown – Only in his mid-20s, Trombone Shorty is becoming a full-fledged star. A regular on the HBO series “Treme,” which is set in the New Orleans neighborhood he was raised in, Troy Andrews was dubbed Trombone Shorty when he was playing and marching in second line parades as young as the age of four. The trombone was far taller than he was, but already there something quite natural about him being with the instrument. Now a master of the long, shiny, sliding thing (as one old bawdy tune refers to the trombone), as well as the trumpet, he has also blossomed into a fine singer and band leader. Shorty oozes charisma on stage, but the thing is, he also does so on this record. There is some truly deep New Orleans funk on this collection (witness “Hurricane Season,” for but one example), as well as a fine mix of funk, rock, jazz, hip-hop and soul which he calls “Supafunkrock!” His cover of Allen Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down” is destined to stand among the better versions of this classic, while his song “Something Beautiful” (featuring Lenny Kravitz on backing vocals) is simply sublime. Troy Andrews — Trombone Shorty — is going to be a star for all the right reasons and this album rocks.
2. Infamous Stringdusters, Things That Fly – The best band of young bluegrass pickers and singers to emerge in recent years, this sextet was firing on all cylinders when they recorded this album. A brilliant collection highlighting their talents individually and collectively, they shine instrumentally, vocally and as songwriters. Yes it’s bluegrass, but it has all of rock’s energy (witness their cover of U2’s “In God’s Country,” for example). Only their third release, but their instrumental skills have earned them a Grammy nomination for “Magic #9” (they’ve been getting nominated for and won several International Bluegrass Music Awards from their first album on), while their overall vibe caused a Buddhist teacher to reflect on no less a subject than the joy of life in a recent Huffington Post article. Banjo player Chris Pandolfi can take the instrument into the realms of jazz abstraction, and mandolin player Jesse Cobb is not limited to straight bluegrass phrasing either. Andy Falco is a superb guitar picker. Dobro player Andy Hall, bassist Travis Book, and fiddler Jeremy Garrett are great singers as well as great players. Harmonically complex, progressive without completely heading into the realms of New Acoustic music, this band can mess with every aspect of a song yet still somehow be within the genre of bluegrass music. The best bluegrass album of the year, bar none.
1. Railroad Earth, Railroad Earth – No band touches my heart the way Railroad Earth does. There’s an emotional and spiritual quality to what this band does sonically and lyrically that moves me like no other. Yet it is also as fun as it is deep. Their first album with an outside producer, Railroad Earth also moved into new territories with this release. Genuine four part harmonies are in evidence on songs like “Long Walk Home.” Todd Shaeffer picks up the electric guitar (though his acoustic is often powered by effects), as does fiddler Tim Carbone, for the rocking look back at a dark historical moment in “Black Elk Speaks.” History infuses several of these songs, such as the story of “The Jupiter and The 119,” the two trains that met when the trans-continental railroad (an apt metaphor for this band that tours coast to coast relentlessly) was completed. The backing vocals again make this a cinematic adventure. Another reason for some of the harder edges in the sound is the addition of bassist Andrew Altman (Blueground Undergrass and the Codetalkers) to the mix after Johnny Grubb decided to leave the group. Where Grubb stuck to the stand-up bass, Altman often turns to the electric bass guitar, adding a rockier vibe to the sound. While there are ballads, there are also jams. One such exploration earned was dubbed “New Jam” by fans as it was developed in concert. Here it emerges full blown as a Celtic rock danceathon entitled “Spring Heeled Jack.” Everyone is picking yet no one solos; all weave around each other to create sonic bliss. Trying to characterize this group’s sound with labels (rock, bluegrass, folk, Celtic, jam) means you will always be missing some element of the sound and coming up short in the description. Andy Goessling can play anything with strings and anything with reeds (and more), which constantly changes the palette of available sounds, John Skehan is a mandolin master, while drummer Carey Harmon lays down a backbeat that does not quit (not mention his skills as a vocalist). Railroad Earth gets me smiling ear-to-ear, but they are also one of the few bands that can get me to shed a tear as well. Their self-titled sixth release (fifth studio album) reveals everything they do so well, and also exhibits growth over their previous, also excellent albums. Railroad Earth is my favorite CD of 2010.