Schemes for going back in time

Bones, roots, and harmony
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  August 22, 2012

THEY'RE RATTLIN', TOO Tumbling Bones.

In this ongoing and new roots revival, there is a fine line to walk, one tip-toed expertly by Old Crow Medicine Show's Ketch Secor at the State Theatre a couple weeks back to a sweltering mass of a sold-out crowd. He was an old-time carnival showman, drawing roars with shouted-out references to Monhegan and Camden and Naples and Bangor and just about every town in between as he exhorted the crowd to manically sweat along with him.

I saw him on the corner before the show, with his infant baby on his chest, reminding me of a time when he played for bills on the street in the Old Port (and telling me to review his new album . . .). He didn't search obscure town names on his phone before the gig — he knows the place.

Which is what you have to do with the music to do it right. It isn't enough to just learn the chords and sing the lyrics to songs that have been around for a hundred years (or songs you want to sound that way). You have to know where you are. If you're just recreating a time and place you've never been, you're nothing more than a hollowly crafted character in a cheap piece of genre fiction.

Which can be all right in its own right, actually. Likable kitsch. But that's another thing altogether.

Especially if you're going to do, as the four-piece, all-acoustic Tumbling Bones do on their second release, Schemes, a song like "O'Death," made awfully damn famous as an anguished keen by Ralph Stanley on the O Brother soundtrack. So Tumbling Bones sidestep. Their take is traditionally quick, strummed banjo, high-lonesome vocals, and recorded so it sounds like you just picked it up for 50 seconds on an old radio you were wondering if still worked, before the transistor faded out once and for all.

There's no half-assing, though, a fully a cappella take on the gospel "Trouble Around My Soul." Nor do they play it safe, really digging in on their vocals. It's not quite "Down to the River" as done on the Three Pickers album, but what else is? Just the earnest and unironic attempt is admirable, the room/mic treatment is very tasteful (Highwater Studios in Pleasant Valley, New York), and the bass harmony part is terrifically resonant.

It backs, too, a great original instrumental by fiddler Sam McDougle, in "Five Points." It's classic old-timey, with the fiddle repeating the melody over and over while the other instruments push in closer to the center. The melody's second half starts with a pair of bent-down and drawn-out notes that recall Bela Fleck's better bluegrass tunes, Peter Winne varies his strum on the guitar well, and they've presented it in the right-sized box: a 2:12 firecracker.

Winne's "Where the Palm Trees Grow" is well done, too. In this classic stringband waltz, Winne shows nice vocal clarity and tone in the lower register to open the tune and it avoids overly syrupy throwback by keeping the fiddle in check and not overdoing things with a pedal steel or slide resonator.

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  Topics: Music Features , Bela Fleck, Old Crow Medicine Show, State Theatre,  More more >
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