Nu-Blu – All the Way

Another in my string of bluegrass reviews, Nu-Blu’s new record “All The Way” manages to take the cheesy and make it memorable. Take leadoff track “That’s What Makes the Bluegrass Blue.” I couldn’t think of a less appealing title. Yet the first spin clothed in expert bluegrass picking and airtight harmonies, makes the song surprisingly enjoyable. Carolyn Routh certainly knows how to pull together a melody and Rhonda Vincent pitches in on harmony vocals as well.


Instrumental “Black Jack” is a banjo workout to say the least and it certainly earns Levi Austin some cred for his quick picking. From there the metronome is turned down quite a bit in favor of a decidedly more acoustic sound on “Forgiveless.” “Jesus and Jones,” and “Heavy Cross to Bear.” These tunes focus a much more open arrangement that features the vocals.

“Rhythm of the Train” is a decidedly moving bluegrass train song. The rhythms of dobro and the subject of the train go together so well with the innocence of the narrator’s childhood story. “It’s Not That Cold in Montana” features vocalist Levi Austin as well. Austin laid back tenor brings the to life.

These guys really know how to pick, particularly on the upbeat numbers.


The Roys – The View

As a recently inducted fan of bluegrass, I’ve come to know that the genre has the ability to turn the cheesy lyrics into an earnest and emotional tune. The Roys (brother and sister duo of Lee and Elaine) use their tight harmonies and musicianship to do just that. With a song like “Live the Life You Love” can only be saved in the right hands and it seems like Lee’s vocal (which sounds quite a bit like Ricky Skaggs) manages to transform corny lyrics into a heartfelt tune.


But Lee really shines on the tune “Those Boots.” In other hands, the tune would fall flat, but the tight harmonies and picking lift this song. I find myself humming along to the patriotic message. Can’t help but enjoy Lee’s ability to keep the lyrics simple and elevate the delivery.

Sister Elaine is certainly no slouch either. Her pristine country drawl is in full force throughout the record. Leadoff track “No More Lonely” features her bluegrass pipes. The tight harmony vocals provide the perfect backdrop for Elaine’s simple and clear delivery.

“No More Tears Left to Cry” has a bit more of a traditional bluegrass feel with prominent banjo intro and breaks. Elaine’s voice is again in the forefront and she belts out the notes after note over the tight arrangements.


The Roys also pulled in mandolin ace Doyle Lawson for “Mandolin Man.” There’s no doubt that the band knows how to pick and sing and have the transformative power of an seasoned set of bluegrass pickers.

Jackson Browne – One Man / Twenty Guitars

10562712_814011181963876_3805264878658154951_oWhen Jackson Browne walked onto Boston’s Opera House stage on a late summer night, it was as though he was stepping into his own living room. The 65-year-old singer/songwriter couldn’t have been more adored by the crowd as they showered him in ovation after ovation and listened intently to each note he sang. Some may call him “easy listening,” but just because his voice is clear and sounds like it did 40 years ago, doesn’t mean that his songs are by any means “soft.” They have a poetic sensibility that is laid bare when he’s out on the stage alone as he was for nearly the entire night.


Over the course of two sets and 25+ songs, Browne’s easy-going manner and rapport with the crowd seemed almost surreal. He sprinkled in some new tunes in the first set but got the crowd going with standards “For Everyman,” “Sky Blue and Black,” and one of the most poetic songs I’ve ever heard: “These Days.” Jackson told the crowd that there was no setlist and that didn’t bother us one bit. After a barrage of songs shouted at him, he admitted that he was going to play what he wanted anyway. It was delivered in such an unassuming and unpretentious way that the crowd could only clap and appreciate him nonetheless.

In all his years in the business, Jackson’s confidence in his craft and the crowd’s appreciation. The second set delved further into the treasure trove of Jackson’s past. He mentioned the vast array of guitar and claimed that it seemed excessive as he paced back and forth thinking about which song to play next. He regaled the crowd talking about how each of the guitars had a song or two in them and that made each one infinitely more interesting. IMG_8949

Browne’s rendition of “For a Dancer,” “Running on Empty,” “Doctor My Eyes,” and “The Pretender” easily lived up to the original classic recording. His voice is still pristine and the tunes still ring true to this day. The lyrics are easily understood but no less complex and singable.

Browne’s final two songs “Take It Easy,” which he wrote with Glenn Frey of the Eagles, and “Before the Deluge” from his two classic albums really show the variety in his songwriting and style. “Take It Easy” is a fun, catchy rocker that is easily recognizable, more for the Eagles’ version. “Before the Deluge” is a downtempo piano ballad with lyrics that are singable and general as Jackson seems to really be able to sing about “For Everyman.” The lyrics “Now let the music keep our spirits high / And let the buildings keep our children dry” seemed to fit perfectly with the feel of the show. Jackson’s music somehow tackles tough issues but kept the fans feeling great in the end.

Photos by Suzanne McMahon

Sierra Hull in the Courtyard

Out in the courtyard at the Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts on a summer evening, I caught one of the most accomplished mandolin players in bluegrass. Sierra Hull may only be 22, but she’s got a tight band, can pick her mandolin, and has quite the voice to go along with it. Right from the start, Sierra wasted no time ripping into a couple of instrumentals. Her picking was rhythmical and her the solos were creative.


And that’s before Sierra opened her mouth to sing. From her 2011 album, “Easy Come, Easy Go” is an assured track that Sierra delivered confidently. “Don’t Pick Me Up” is another excellent track from “Daybreak.”

Sierra Hull’s band moved with her easily. Clay Hess (guitar), Cory Walker (banjo), and Christian Ward (fiddle) were the perfect backdrop. A bluegrass band whose crafty picking and solos merged easily with Sierra’s an knew just when to take a backseat.


She can write heck of a tune also. “Two Winding Rails” and “All Because of You” feature Sierra’s pristine vocals. It’s something of a young Alison Krauss.

With her amazing background, Sierra Hull has so many talents. Some may say that Sierra has only known music for all her life, but she’s got so much life in front of her. The future is bright for her. Sierra’s writing is sounding more and more polished. I can’t decide if I like the earlier record of the later one.

Photos by Suzanne McMahon

Newport Folk Festival – Saturday

With his days in the blues-rock duo White Stripes now comfortably behind him, Jack White has become a bit of a generational connector. He’s paid homage to country, blues and rock legends, yet he keeps winning new fans. When he stepped on to the stage at Newport Folk Fest, the standing area at the front of the fort swallowed much of the fans lounging on their blankets. Young and old fans alike stood up to listen to the sound.

White’s set included several blues covers that fit the venue so well. He gave them his blues rock treatment though he did have a fiddle and mandolin player (though they were a bit hard to make out in the mix). He included Son House tune “Death Letter,” Blind Willie Johnson cover “John the Revelator,” and “Goodnight, Irene” by Leadbelly. White certainly made these songs his own as his palpable energy as he got the crowd into a frenzy. White also included a country tinged “We’re Going to Be Friends” in the mix of his signature blues rock. White’s guitar work and songwriting are varied and move between blues, rock, and country without a second thought.

Chris Thile & Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek

Chris Thile & Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek

Just before the headliner, Nickel Creek brought their expert musicianship and unique songwriting style to the for stage. While the crowd seemed somewhat restless at the start, the trio rocked the house with their traditional bluegrass instrumentation. Sara Watkins’ “Destination” was a particular favorite. The band played with such aggression that the fans had no choice but to take notice. Sean Watkins’ more traditional songwriting and flatpicking on the “21st of May” continues to be a favorite from the band’s recent record “A Dotted Line” (after a seven year hiatus). Chris Thile’s mandolin work and singing managed to accentuate the emotions of the songs. I can see why he’s received the Macarthur Genius Grant. Thile contributed the simple beauty and melodic mandolin picking on the “Lighthouse Tale,” “Ode to A Butterfly,” and new tune “Somebody More Like You.” Thile also did an unannounced intimate mandolin workshop. Unfortunately, I didn’t check my phone quick enough to get in!

Sean Watkins

Sean Watkins

The day also included several duos. The Milk Carton Kids are two guys who sing and play acoustic guitar. Their show fit the more intimate quad stage. The two sound like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings guitar work with a bit of Simon & Garfunkel’s tight harmonies thrown in. I don’t make that comparison lightly and their songs are not as striking as the aforementioned artists so far. Vocalist Joey Ryan also included some of the funniest deadpan humor I’ve ever heard. His bit could have easily been used for standup. He went into a monologue about how father’s don’t get enough credit for the the difficulty of childbirth based on his recent experience. He also went on to list the difficulties including that he had to miss a gig for his son’s birth. Then he went on to describe how he could talk to his son for hours and hours and that he couldn’t do that with adults. This comedic intro certainly garnered at least as much applause as the songs and with good reason. He was hilarious. Musically, the band played clean arrangements and Kenneth Pattengale added in harmonized guitar work.

Carry Ann Hearst & Michael Trent of Shovels & Rope

Cary Ann Hearst & Michael Trent of Shovels & Rope

An earlier duo, Shovels & Rope, easily rocked the Fort Stage. Carry Ann Hearst and Michael Trent needed no help to bring the stage to life. They switched back and forth between guitar and drums. They harmonize and accent each other’s tunes in whatever way they can. As a husband and wife duo, they seem to get as much energy from one another as they do from the crowd. The pair have a striking variety of different tunes that all seem to rock out in one way or another. I can see why the two came together and committed to the duo.

Carry Ann Hearst

Cary Ann Hearst

After two days of music, I learned of the ways that artists are bending genres in such creative ways. Folk becomes punk or blues or country and back again. The artists brought it all together and used their voices to show how different it became.

Photos by Suzanne McMahon