BLUEGRASSING YOUR PANTS OFF Tricky Britches.
Most often, I think, whatever "chemistry" is results from a band playing together like their lives depended on it. If you want to know what the biggest difference is between the Tricky Britches' second album, the brand-new Hard Fought Day, and their debut from last year, Hop on a Train, I'd say it's about 100 days straight of playing stringband music on the streets of Europe, busking for enough money to eat and sleep that night.
That's what mandolin player Seth Doyle, bassist Jed Bresette, and fiddler Tyler Lienhardt did last summer, wending their way from Dublin to Warsaw (full disclosure: Doyle left my band to go on this trip, and I've played a gig or two with all three of them). Once back, they re-upped with long-timer Nick Wallace on guitar and new-timer Ryan Wilkinson on banjo, and took their familiarity with one another to new heights, working on intricate four-part harmonies and the ins and outs of being a professional band, one that's willing to hop in the van for a couple of months and see what happens.
That's the great thing about old-timey/bluegrass/country/stringband music: You don't need a whole lot of gear or power or load-in or any of that infrastructure in order to ply your trade. You just need your instruments and calluses and a willingness to keep playing until no one wants you to play anymore. These guys have all kinds of great stories about playing on the street, getting invited to play a gig at a nearby bar, then finding themselves with a free hotel room for the night and breakfast in the morning.
Of course, that only works if you're good. Old Crow Medicine Show are probably the model for this sort of band development, turning themselves from buskers to country-crossover stars with a little song called "Wagon Wheel" and a ton of charisma (chemistry's close cousin). Tricky Britches are currently somewhere around Eutaw-era OCMS, possessed of that ragged energy that can make a simple lead much more entertaining than what you might hear from more accomplished players.
Except rather than rehash a bunch of traditionals, Tricky Britches here have delivered nine brand-new songs (and one reworked instrumental "cover," "Dusty Ridge," that's never before been recorded), upping the ante on many traditionally bluegrassy/old-timey albums. Plus, they're tight enough (the mando-fiddle lock-step playing in "Dusty" is sublime) that they'll impress some of the naysayers who say a lot of these newer traditional stringbands are just good-looking young guys bringing a great genre of music to a new group of college kids who don't know to look for something better.
This makes for a couple of big winners. The closing "Winnebago" (which is too good to be the closing song, despite the great finish that leaves people wanting more) is a fun take on the band-on-the-road meme, with pure drive in the open, then a pull-back to half-time for the chorus. Wilkinson's banjo break here rips in a non-Scruggs way and Doyle's mando fills between his lead vocals pop like fireworks. Similarly, Wilkinson's "Arizona" may sound kinda like OCMS's "James River Blues," but that doesn't mean the B-flat key and genuine longing don't make for a powerful song.