OLD SALT UNION
A great band is more than the proverbial sum of its parts, and in the pursuit of becoming something that can cut through the clutter of YouTube stars and contest show runner-ups, a great roots music band must become a way of life. Less likely to rely on production or image, theyve got to connect with their audience only through the craftsmanship of their songs, the energy they channel on the stage and the story that brings them together.
Old Salt Union is a string band founded by a horticulturist, cultivated by classically trained musicians, and fueled by a vocalist/bass player who is also a hip-hop producer with a fondness for the Four Freshmen. It is this collision of styles and musical vocabularies that informs their fresh approach to bluegrass and gives them an electric live performance vibe that seems to pull more from Vaudeville than the front porch.
In 2015 they won the FreshGrass Band contest and found the perfect collaborator in Compass Records co-founder and GRAMMY winning banjoist and composer, Alison Brown, whose attention to detail and high standards pushed the group to develop their influences from beyond a vocabulary to pull from during improvisation and into the foundation of something truly compelling in the roots music landscape.
Violinist John Brighton mentions some names familiar to the Compass roster as key influences, musicians like Darol Anger, Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall and Mark OConnor, all of whom have collaborated with Brown in the past. Primary vocalist and bassist, Jesse Farrar (for the indie rock heads - yes, hes related Son Volt front man Jay Farrar is Jesses uncle) brings an alternative rock spirit as well as his unique formative experiences as a hip hop producer and bass player for a national tour of The Four Freshmen. The bands self-titled Compass debut combines these instrumental proclivities with pop melodies and harmonies into a coherent piece of work that carves out a road-less-travelled for the band in the now crowded roots music genre.
The album kicks off with a nod to alternative rock sensibilities a deconstructed symphonic drone creeps in slowly, while Farrar emerges through the atmospherics to deliver the first lines Stranded on a lonely road/Trying to find my way back home/A dollar and a broken heart/Didnt seem to get me very far. His words are followed by a dramatic moment of silence (a trick often used in hip hop) that quickly launches into Where I Stand, a hard-driving bluegrass track that gets moving so powerfully you almost dont notice the layer of angelic harmonies flowing consistently underneath.
Mandolinist Justin Wallace takes over lead vocal duties for the second track Feel My Love as well as a version of Paul Simons You Can Call Me Al. He pops up again on his composition On My Way and his no-frills, approachable voice is the perfect complement to Farrars more gymnastic style. The two work together beautifully on the Wallace-penned, Hard Line. Wallace is further showcased on the discs lone instrumental Flatt Baroque, composed by Brighton, who joins him in some twin mandolin, and its this more contemplative moment on the album where the listener hears him reaching to be in perfect sync with his bandmate, that best reflects Wallaces role in the evolution story of the band. If Farrar has emerged as the heartbeat, then Wallace is the soul.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the band was founded by banjoist Ryan Murphey, the aforementioned horticulturist who came to bluegrass music and the banjo later in life. Finding a kindred spirit in Dustin Eiskant, the bands former guitarist and Farrars cousin, the pair started the band in 2012 and Murphey played the banjo and led the bands business through its early incarnations, including the recruitment of Farrar in 2014.
Though the band had established themselves as a growing festival act with performances at LouFest, Stagecoach Festival, Bluegrass Underground, Winter Wondergrass, Freshgrass, Wakarusa, Yonder Mountain String Band's Harvest Festival, and the 2014 Daytona 500, it was their breakout track on Spotify, Madam Plum that seemed to amplify awareness of the band beyond the bluegrass bubble.
Of working with the band in the studio, producer Brown says, These post modern bluegrassers are true renegades. While they look like a bluegrass band, their musical sensibilities run much deeper and broader, borrowing as much from indie rock and jazz fusion as from Bill Monroe. And, even more exciting to me, they know no fear! They are wide open musical adventurers and we had a great time experimenting in the studio at the crossroads of these disparate influences.
The most unexpected but possibly most fascinating song on the album is a ballad entitled Bought and Sold. Its earnest beauty is balanced with a youthful inventiveness that leaves a solemn mark on the listener who might wake up at the end of it thinking, What just happened?.
At this point, the future of the band seems marvelously unclear. The album closes with Here and Off My Mind which seems like the bluegrass song that Conor Oberst never wrote featuring a lyric that ends with the promise of a better life though from the all-hands-on-deck jam session that breaks out in the middle (is that a kazoo?) one gets the sense that the band cant imagine a better one than they have in the beat up Winnebago they currently call home.
Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks (View)
100 West Main Street
Millheim, PA 16854
|Minimum Age: 18|
|Wheelchair Accessible: Yes!|