Steep Canyon Rangers

Steep Canyon Rangers

When the time came for the Steep Canyon Rangers to record the follow-up to 2012’s Nobody Knows You, they headed north to Woodstock, NY, to Levon Helm’s famed studio with Grammy-winning producer Larry Campbell and engineer Justin Guip. This was a departure from their previous albums, where they chose co-producers from within the bluegrass community. Instead of having Campbell co-produce, the band gave him full control.

Over the months before they started to record Tell The Ones I Love, they sent him several dozen new songs to consider. And while the Steep Canyon Rangers were certainly open to recording songs by other composers, or to dip into traditional material, Campbell ultimately had them record all original tunes, based both on the strength of the songs, and the band’s arrangements. This seems fitting for a band whose stellar reputation is based on performing original material, and who had just won the Best Bluegrass Album Grammy Award for Nobody Knows You. There’s a backstory here, too: last year, the band played Levon’s Midnight Ramble, and impressed Helm enough that he invited them to come back and record at the barn. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen before his untimely passing, but they still felt his joyful, creative spark and subtle influence while working in his studio.

The band wanted Tell The Ones I Love to reflect the spirit of their concerts—an original, freewheeling, high energy approach to bluegrass that rests mainly on the songwriting of Graham Sharp and Charles Humphrey. They recorded the album almost entirely live, using few overdubs. “We wanted it to be different from our last album,” explained banjo player Graham Sharp, “and create something more raw and immediate.” Guitarist Woody Platt added that they headed into recording with “more confidence and momentum” from both their Grammy win and their unrelenting touring schedule.

Campbell, a highly sought after musician and producer (Bob Dylan, Levon Helm), was often down on the floor with the band so he could feel what was being performed. His strategy to have the music sound organic – “where you can hear the environment of the barn” – fit well with the band’s performances. Sharp praised Campbell for being “exactly what we needed in a producer. Larry took us through arrangements from a little different perspective.”

Tell The Ones I Love actually is the first bluegrass album Campbell produced, although as a big bluegrass fan, he has heard, in his estimation, “20 million bluegrass bands.” When he saw the Steep Canyon Rangers play at the Ramble, Campbell was attracted to how they respected bluegrass without being constrained by its conventions. Getting into the studio with the band only enhanced Campbell’s appreciation of their collective and individual talents. He admired that they “held on to the essence of what makes bluegrass viable, and subtly reinvented it to make their thing unique.”

One way that the band stretched bluegrass boundaries was with their use of drums and percussion on Tell The Ones I Love. “We didn’t want something that was just a bluegrass track with drums laid on it like an afterthought,” said Sharp. “We wanted something that was really integrated.” They enlisted Jeff Sipe (Leftover Salmon, Susan Tedeschi, Aquarium Rescue Unit), whom Sharp described as “one of the best drummers around.” His propulsive playing helps to drive the title track as well as injecting some funky rhythms into “Camellia.”

Tell The Ones I Love showcases the Steep Canyon Rangers’ myriad talents— nimble instrumental agility, tight harmony vocals, and inventive songwriting. The 12-song set ranges from full-band workouts like the title track to the haunting, tight “Hunger.” On “Las Vegas,” the band displays jazzy touches while Mike Guggino’s instrumental “Graveyard Fields” is a bluegrass tour de force. Tell The Ones I Love, in fact, affords each Ranger opportunities to shine, whether it’s Graham Sharp’s expressive banjo intro on Charles Humphrey/Philip Barker’s plaintive “Bluer Words Were Never Spoken,” Nicky Sanders’ soaring fiddle on “Boomtown” or Humphrey’s walking bass that anchors his “Mendocino County Blue.” “It’s a record that doesn’t stay on the same plane,” Platt, who contributes dynamic lead vocals on nine of the songs, explained. “It has interesting contours, like our shows.”

These days, it’s hard to talk about the Steep Canyon Rangers without mentioning Steve Martin. After meeting at a party and clicking immediately, Martin invited the band to tour and record with him. 2011’s collaboration Rare Bird Alert was nominated for a Grammy, and later that year, they won IBMA’s Entertainer of the Year Award. They average about 50 dates a year together, touring as Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, and most recently with the addition of special guest Edie Brickell. What has emerged is a real collaboration of seven consummate musicians—creating music that they are passionate about, and blending it with humor to form a sophisticated show. They are proud that it has exposed legions of new fans to the bluegrass genre. These collaborations have stretched the Steep Canyon Rangers musically, and definitely broadened their horizons and experiences, which include recent appearances on Austin City Limits, the Late Show with David Letterman, and the Today Show, and performances at Carnegie Hall, the Grand Ole Opry, MerleFest, Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit, as well as their own Mountain Song festival and Mountain Song at Sea cruise.

The release of Tell the Ones I Love finds the Steep Canyon Rangers in a unique situation, and one they don’t take lightly: “It took a lot of work for us to nose our way into the bluegrass world and become a de facto representative,” Sharp acknowledges, “and we think it’s a real responsibility.” With this new record, “we can be a bridge between the bluegrass crowd and a wider audience that may not be die-hard bluegrass fans.” Yet.

Joy Kills Sorrow

Joy Kills Sorrow has always had a knack for writing and performing intimate songs. Now the Boston-based string band is emphasizing their epic side, too, on Wide Awake, a new EP out June 4 on Signature Sounds. The seven-song collection serves as a milepost in the blossoming career of a group the Los Angeles Daily News praised as “virtuoso art folkies who understand the value of being just folks.”

“It’s a statement about where the band is now and where we’re heading,” guitarist Matthew Arcara says. “With this record, we’re concentrating on getting a fuller, bigger, more powerful sound from the band. We want the epic sound of an indie-rock band plugged in, but on acoustic instruments.”

Wide Awake features six riveting new original songs that showcase singer Emma Beaton’s soulful, enveloping voice on lush acoustic arrangements fleshed out by Arcara on guitar, Wes Corbett on banjo, Jacob Jolliff on mandolin and Zoe Guigueno on bass. The EP also includes a cover of the Postal Service’s 2003 electro-pop single “Such Great Heights,” which Joy Kills Sorrow has been performing in concert for a while after learning the song during a residency at the Lizard Lounge in Boston.

“It’s a tune that people recognize and it gives them a lens to see Joy Kills Sorrow through,” Arcara says. “We’ve always been interested in this idea of how to play non-traditional music in a traditional string-band setting. ‘Such Great Heights’ gave us an opportunity to say, OK, how can we take this mostly electronic recording and spread the bits and pieces around to the different instruments?”

The EP, which follows the full-length albums Darkness Sure Becomes This City in 2010 and This Unknown Science in 2011, is also a chance to introduce listeners to Guigueno, who joined the band last fall.

“She’s a really strong, dynamic bass player and a really strong singer,” Arcara says. “She helps unify the band’s drive and pulse, and we’ve really been able to tighten up and fatten up the groove.”

Joy Kills Sorrow will show off that fattened groove in concert when the band goes on tour starting in May and continuing through mid-August, before the group gets to work on their third full-length LP. Which is not to say that Wide Awake doesn’t stand fully on its own.

“There’s no filler, no down spots,” Arcara says. “These are just tunes we feel really good about and wanted to put out to the world.”

Joy Kills Sorrow formed in 2005, bringing together virtuoso musicians who share a love of American roots music. Beaton, who studied cello at Berklee College of Music, won “Young Performer of the Year” at the Canadian Folk Music Awards in 2008. Arcara took first place in the National Flat Pick Guitar contest at the Walnut Valley Festival in 2006. Jolliff, who was Berklee’s first full-scholarship mandolin student, won first place in the National Mandolin Championship in 2012 at the Walnut Valley Festival. Corbett teaches banjo at Berklee College of Music. Guigueno, a British Columbia native, graduated with the President’s Award for the Creative and Performing Arts from Canada’s prestigious Humber College in Toronto, where she studied jazz bass. She recorded and toured for years throughout Canada and Europe with acclaimed Canadian bands Fish & Bird, Crooked Brothers and Bull Kelp before joining Joy Kills Sorrow.

Together, the band members are beginning a new chapter for Joy Kills Sorrow as part of a story that continues to unfold. “It’s a little bit of a new direction for us,” Arcara says. “We’re excited about where it’s going.”

$25 advance / $27 day of show

Tickets

The Sinclair is general admission standing room only.
Tickets available at TICKETMASTER.COM, or by phone at 800-745-3000. No service charge on tickets purchased in person at The Sinclair Box office Tuesdays-Saturdays 12-7PM. Please note: box office is cash only.

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Steep Canyon Rangers with Joy Kills Sorrow

Wednesday, November 20 · Doors 7:00 PM / Show 8:00 PM at The Sinclair