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Best of Portland 2009

No man is an island

Two rootsy discs, 20 rootsy players
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  May 6, 2009

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BY NO MEANS ALONE Brad Strause is just one of the company.

Anybody who needs to be reminded of the musical talent that swirls around and intermingles throughout our fair city probably doesn't listen to a ton of local music. No one records in a vacuum. Sometimes it seems like it's not enough for anyone to play in just one band or to go more than a couple months without visiting a recording studio.

Last week, somewhere north of 20 bluegrass musicians (I was one of them, but not among the best) filled up the St. Lawrence to help out WMPG and, getting ready for the gig, I was reminded to go back and give another spin to Ron Cody's The Talking Rake, a collection of Irish tunes featuring his five-string banjo and contributions by nine others of our great wealth of string-band talent. Cody played the Bluegrass Extravaganza as part of the Stowaways, who can do everything from ultra-trad bluegrass to slick-pop newgrass, but for this project he focused on the Irish tradition, both its music and its mindset.

And so he got some friends together, recorded 13 "songs" (many of the tracks are in fact medleys), and just happened to produce a pretty damn sublime piece of instrumental brilliance.

Which got me thinking of another project that's been kicking around the house, this Strause & Company disc, Come on Over, which seems to have been manufactured in the same way, with Brad Strause having written a bunch of blues-rock tunes that are enmeshed in a tradition of their own, a time when it was cool to whistle at a girl's legs and people actually gave a crap about freight trains. (Was it ever actually cool to whistle at a girl's legs? That's unclear to me.)

And so Strause hooked up with drummer John Nunan (you know him from Bullyclub), who threw together another eight musicians and dialed up the recording prowess down at Acadia, and kicked out a swampy stomp that may actually smell of spilled beer when you open the packaging (scratch and sniff?), but sure can be a lot of fun if you're in the right frame of mind.

It's the new era of music-making, where you may never be a rock star, but you can make crisp, professional, sometimes-beautiful records with a little help from your friends. Maybe this was always true, but never has it been so easy to distribute in snazzy packaging and via the Internet, that's for sure.

Cody gets help from Stowaway mandolin player Joe Walsh, especially in the contribution of his composition and playing on "Bob's Bucket," a great example of how you can string together a lot of notes and still seem laconic and relaxed. Walsh is Berklee-trained and Bramhall-seasoned; he makes it all seem effortless. Then the song transitions into "Simon Throumire's," written by John McCusker, a Scottish fiddler you might know from the Battlefield Band (like the Jerks album from last year, this disc can point you to some pretty cool modern roots music from all over the world). Erica Brown helps out here, showing just how powerful and delicate a player she can be.

One of the coolest tunes on Talking is "Snow on the Hills," which is delicate in the opening, Natalie Haas's cello providing a warm bottom, Cody's banjo picking out single notes, then paired with the mandolin, then paired with the fiddle, which steals the show a little when it reaches for the high strings. Then the banjo drops away, the cello moves from fluid to staccato and chunky, and a flute takes on the role of silk under-pinning, eventually allowing the banjo to eke its way back into the mix.

The album's constant is the interplay between Cody's banjo and Haas's cello, like dancers locked in an intricate waltz.

For Strause's Come on Over, the heart is a driving harmonica from Joe Bloom, a high-pitched whine to accompany Strause's comfortably rough delivery. The songs are about dogs and girls, possums and girls, bad times and girls. It'd be a country album if you were just going by the content. But everything else is old-time blues-rock, like what got the Stones started.

Friends here include the party that helps out with "Possum Stomp," which was partly recorded down in Eunice, Louisiana, with a ripping guitar part from Mark Maeux, and Matthew Doucet on fiddle (and triangle — you know him from Douce, which used to play around here, with Strause on guitar), and sounds pretty much exactly how you'd think it would sound, before falling apart at the finish, like they've run out of gas.

Neal Shepherd's piano recalls sticky floors and late nights; Jody Day offers backing vocals to support Strause's sensitivity on the "Sometimes" ballad; Jerks of Grass (who played with the Stowaways Monday, you'll remember) Jason Phelps and Kris Day lend mandolin and bass talents, respectively.

Talent swirls and ebbs through this town, joining together in ways you sometimes can't see coming. It's pretty rare it's not a pleasant surprise.

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at

THE TALKING RAKE | Released by Ron Cody | at One Longfellow Square, in Portland | June 6 |

COME ON OVER | Released by Strause & Company | at Run of the Mill, in Saco | May 17 |

Related: Tweak-folk, Beyond tradition, Schools of rock, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Bluegrass, Brad Strause, Entertainment,  More more >
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