A MODERN STRINGBAND Hamilton County.
Photo by Kate Driver
Is it bluegrass if it doesn't have a banjo? Or a fiddle, for that matter? Hamilton County, a three-piece acoustic outfit who debut their first CD, Brokedown Breakdown, next week, sure do a good impersonation of a bluegrass band, even if purists might dismiss it on technicalities.
Often in the vein of Jerry Garcia and David Grisman's Shady Grove or a Nickel Creek album, heavy on the improvisation and playful with chord progressions and rhythms, but with a fairly stripped-down instrumentation, Hamilton County do especially well by playing all originals — 10 pickers and one singer (okay, there's half of a traditional fiddle song tacked on) — and adding nicely to what is a canon-dominated genre. The disc has a gritty, live feel, too (thanks to recording engineer Evan Casas), that lends an old-timeyness that never hurts a bluegrass record and isn't bad when they transition into Django-type jazz from time to time.
There's a worldliness here you won't find on a Del McCoury Band album, possibly lent by Adam Montminy (Grupo Esperanza) on bass, but likely where modern stringband music is going nowadays, thanks to influences like J.D. Crowe, Bela Fleck, and Chris Thile. "Suha" has a gypsy/Eastern European vibe running through it, where Bob Hamilton does some of his best guitar work, working in weird scales (for a bluegrass record) and weird rhythms.
"Orpheus Walk" has a sultry Evan Chase mandolin riff in the open that the guitar manages to mimic to a T before handing the lead back. Then, just when you've resigned yourself to the pace, at 1:30 or so they ramp into a double-time take that doesn't just do the same thing twice as fast, but actually moves the song forward like a big, extended chorus, before relenting to the opening pace and finishing in a jazzy bass. "Space Bar" plays with a repeating three-note bit in just about every way possible.
This is a very listenable disc, lyrical and thoughtful. And Hamilton used to be the band's banjo player, so they have another entirely different album in them, I'm betting. Maybe there we'll hear a take on the "Borrowed Banjo Breakdown" that actually includes a banjo. Or at a show.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BROKEDOWN BREAKDOWN, released by Hamilton County | at the Empire, in Portland | June 13 | www.myspace.com/thehamiltoncounty