Mendip String Band / The Jolenes, Chapel Arts, 2012
Posted on 8th July 2012
The Jolenes / The Mendip String Band
Chapel Arts Centre
Saturday, July 7, 2012
Chapel Arts Centre was packed, looking lovely as ever for this night of the flourishing Bath Americana Festival in its second year.
Opening the evening was the Mendip String Band, a delightful throwback to Americana of the 30s and 40s led by the redoubtable Kevin Brown. Despite its “string band” name and the presence of its four stellar musicians, the MSB was as much a vocal band as instrumental. They all sang, the only one not singing lead was double bassist Bill Crampton. Kevin is a soulful tenor with a bluesy edge to his country vocals; guitarist Joff Lowson had the most mellifluous voice, perfect for the period without a shred of self-conscious imitation; fiddler John Boston was a lively singer and the only one that yodelled, a staple of the genre. Their plentiful harmonies and call-and-response choruses were perfect.
One of the most appealing aspects of the Mendip String Band is that they subordinate their instrumental virtuosity to the the band; they are first and foremost, musical. As Kevin pointed out, bassist Crampton plays the low notes – and with perfect swing, I might add. Joff Lowson can knock your sox off on guitar, but he spent most of the time strumming a simple backbeat that locked in with the bass to make a drummer unnecessary — they should be playing dances, as their predecessors did.
John Boston's fiddle had as much, or more, solo space as Kevin's lap steel and he was consistently energetic and inventive. Kevin is a wonder of precision and melodic playing, a well known master of slide who has turned his abundant talents to the lap steel and country music over the last few years. It is a perfect fit.
The Mendip's longish set with such gems as I'm An Old Cowhand, Take Me Back To Tulsa, and No Shoes Boogie was extended with an enthusiastically demanded encore and it still could happily have gone on longer.
After the genre veracity and instrumental excellence of the Mendips, The Jolenes, despite their bright red dresses and beehive hairdos, paled. Self-described as a bluegrass band, they probably had Bill Monroe spinning in his grave – and he would surely spin faster than anyone else. The Jolenes repertoire wasn't very bluegrass – songs with too many chords – and their playing was a bit limp for what is defined as a high velocity, high energy, high octane take on Appalachian music. A fiddle and a banjo do not bluegrass make. The exception was the double bassist, who played with energy and had the best, sauciest singing voice. The guitarist, basically a strummer, was hampered by poor guitar and vocal mic sound; without these problems she might have come up to par. The banjo player was slow and deliberate; she would have been eaten alive by Earl Scruggs. The violinist was unfortunately that, a violinist, not a fiddler.
So the Jolenes were more an entertainment project than a bluegrass band, and as that, they were moderately entertaining, though their harmonies were imprecise and not well blended. Entertaining and good-humoured, yes, but still lacking in the ability to move an audience in any way deeper than the superficial.
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