The Tillers

"An established band with their musical plow deep within the soil of their forefathers reaping and reviving not only the rich history of their surroundings but planting seeds in the listener’s heart and brain…the hand is firmly on the plow indeed. The Tillers do not disappoint.”
-No Depression

“Through non-stop touring, The Tillers have made quite a name for themselves with their “must see” live show but with their new album, Hand On The Plow, the spotlight should now rest on their great songwriting and give them the wide-spread recognition they deserve.”
-Atlas and the Anchor

“Like a passer-by on a summer drive through the country, I have had the privilege of monitoring the Tillers’ own growth throughout the years. Coming in with fresh eyes to each gig, I have enjoyed the fruits of the rapid advancement of their musical garden of delights. Don’t get me wrong, Mike Oberst and Sean Geil’s talent were present from the beginning. But with the cultivation of endless (and no doubt thankless) tours and pub dates, these two “brothers in melody” were suddenly tapping into progressively deeper and darker tillage. Put plainly: they just kept getting better and better.
Like no other group I’ve ever heard, the Tillers are able to break your heart with an intangible, timeless pain. Combined they harmonize like the Celestial Monochorde of old, awakening once again the ancient muses to strum the heartstrings of man. Apart, they voice a pained, hoarse timbre that hearkens to their own personal losses…losses we all sweetly suffer vicariously through their melody.
The metaphor of gardening and growth is not lost on those who hear The Tillers. The arabesque spread of their burgeoning tones resemble the health of summer plantlife, spring rains and abundance. It comes as no surprise that singer/banjoist Mike Oberst is himself a farmer (there is something to be said for real life, agrarian experience and its natural bi-product of folk music.)
Knuckled roots weaving through the Appalachian coffins of old souls buried in veins of coal…The Earth and Her cycles of life and death is the running theme here. But isn’t it the ultimate theme? Whether the modern ear is turned deaf to these truths or not, we all must heed the holler that the Tillers intone.
Nose to the ground, hand on the plow, hard work and harmonies. Take it from an old fan, if you are reading this now, you are the lucky one. For this is fertile ground indeed.”
-Col. J.D. Wilkes, Th' Legendary Shack Shakers

Pert Near Sandstone

It was roughly a decade ago that Pert Near Sandstone first gathered around a microphone in a Minneapolis basement to record their debut album, 'Up And Down The River.' So much has happened since then: highs and lows, personal struggles and artistic triumphs, new faces and new sounds. The winding road they've traveled over the years makes it all the more meaningful for the band to come full circle on their dazzling new release, 'Discovery Of Honey,' which finds them once again recording in a basement and reuniting with founding member Ryan Young, who's spent the past seven years touring the world playing fiddle with bluegrass stars Trampled By Turtles.

"Besides playing with us, Ryan was also our first recording engineer back when we were just starting out," says mandolin/fiddle player Nate Sipe. "Working with him again on the new album, we were able to recapture that feeling of lightning in a bottle from the early days."

"We all learned how to do this together," adds banjo player Kevin Kniebel. "We have more tools in our kit now and we've evolved as musicians and songwriters, but what hasn't changed is the chemistry between us."

That chemistry has been abundantly clear from the very first days of Pert Near Sandstone, when the band—whose current lineup features Sipe and Kniebel, founding guitarist J Lenz, bassist Justin Bruhn, and clog & fiddle player Matt Cartier—burst onto the American roots music scene in a flurry of fiddling, picking, and stomping. They followed their debut record with a string of four critically acclaimed albums that had No Depression hailing them as "stellar" and The Minneapolis Star Tribune praising their songs as "masterfully and jubilantly plucked." NPR's Mountain Stage celebrated the band's "Midwestern stamp on Appalachian [sounds]," while The Current described their live performances as "a frenzied string shredding spree that takes audiences under its spell."

The band earned performances everywhere from the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival to A Prairie Home Companion, and shared bills on the road with the likes of Trampled By Turtles, Del McCoury, and Yonder Mountain String Band. As their reputation grew, they cemented their status as linchpins of the Midwestern scene by founding their very own festival, Blue Ox, which has featured performances by Bela Fleck, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Shovels & Rope, Justin Townes Earle, Blitzen Trapper, and more.

"People get really wrapped up in genre and labeling," explains Kniebel, "but Blue Ox allows us to showcase all these different aspects of roots and American music that are really important to us and to the fabric of folk music today."

"Whether you have drums and an electric guitar or a jug and a fiddle, it's all part of the same voice," adds Sipe. "It's a blessing to be able to present a festival that can incorporate all of those elements."

That same voracious musical appetite and disregard for the strictures of genre and tradition fuel much the music on 'Discovery Of Honey,' which finds the band setting their sights higher than ever before and pushing the complexity of their songwriting and the sheer energy of their performances to remarkable new peaks. With Young back in the fold recording and co-producing, the band gathered just outside of Minneapolis at their old friend's new home—which had originally been constructed by an end-times prepper to withstand a nuclear apocalypse—for the recording sessions.

"There's a huge ham radio tower in the back and catacombs of rooms with storage for cans and everything," explains Sipe. "The two-foot-thick concrete walls of the bomb shelter had a 1-inch iron plate in the middle, and when they were wiring up the house, the electrician couldn't even get through it at first."

It proved to be the perfect mix of seclusion and comfort, with the basement serving as both a familiar setting and an ideal place for Pert Near Sandstone to unleash their explosion of string band energy and excitement. Sitting in a circle and performing live together, they knocked out basic tracking for the album in just two-and-a-half days. Over the following weeks, they'd revisit the songs individually, cutting vocals and solos and experimenting with layering up additional sounds to flesh out the rich, acoustic orchestration.

The album kicks off with the stately "Bloom Again," a Kniebel-penned track about the fragility and beauty of love. Propelled by clawhammer banjo and tremolo mandolin, the track features rich, triumphant harmonies and rides on a wave of ethereal organ swells, showing off the folkier side of the band's personality. They follow it up with a trip to the opposite end of the spectrum on the rollicking, rag-time, jugband-inspired "Nothing I Can Do," from which the album draws its title.

"'Discovery Of Honey' really encapsulated the overall theme of the record," says Sipe. "A lot of the songs are about finding a new fertile ground, about approaching love for the first time again."

Indeed, several of the tracks (including Kniebel's "Uncover Me" and Sipe's "Again And Again") look at old love in new ways, but the album covers a broad spectrum, both musically and thematically. "Rattlesnake" is a breakneck fiddle-tune inspired by Sipe's relocation to southern California and his forays into the desert, while the toe-tapping "Bay Road" came to him during a solo retreat to a family cabin in central Minnesota, and "Don't Need You" is a fingerstyle blues written by Lenz in the tradition of Charlie Parr or Spider John Koerner. In addition, Bruhn contributed his first writing credits on the album with "Animal Instinct" and "Biting My Nails," an unplanned recording that found the band pushing themselves to experiment with detuning their instruments and layering on unexpected sounds like pedal steel guitar.

That musical fearlessness is part of what makes the group so difficult to pin down and also such perfect stewards for string band music in the 21st century. The sweetest honey awaits those brave enough to risk being stung, and the band reaps the rewards of their musical courage here in spades. 'Discovery Of Honey' is Pert Near Sandstone's finest work to date, and that's buzz you can believe in.

Al Scorch

Stormy, busky, brawling, City of Big
Shoulders.” – from “Chicago” by Carl Sandburg

Al Scorch grew up in Chicago, with its storied history
of corrupt power at the top and righteous fighters
and big dreamers at the bottom. From the town that
gave the world characters like Studs Terkel, Upton
Sinclair, and the anarchists in Bughouse Square,
Scorch adds his voice to the choir with the enthusiasm
and charisma of a Maxwell Street preacher. He eyes
the prize of that ever-elusive promised land that’s
worth scrapping for, wherever or whatever it may
be. With a stentorian bullhorn of a voice, he exhorts,
not with a holy book in his hand, but a banjo and
guitar. He’s a messenger and a conduit, a believer
that a soul-stirring song will march you forward.

Balanced on wedges of punk, old-time string band,
American and European folk, and soulful balladry, Al
is an entertainer, road warrior, storyteller, and one
helluva musician. His second album and Bloodshot
debut Circle Round the Signs is built on a sonic
framework sharing an intersection with the Bad
Livers’ lawless next-gen take on traditional country
& bluegrass, and Black Flag’s burn-it-all-down revolt
and breakneck tempos. From the train-hopping
tale of “Pennsylvania Turnpike” - updating steel
rails to concrete ribbons - to the shout-along, latenight
lament of “Insomnia” (“I toss and I turn
in my bed every night/ I’m sober but my mind’s
as high as a kite”), the aural dexterity is thrilling.

Woody Guthrie’s “Slipknot” gets a complex, Western
swing cum prog-grass treatment, led by the angular
fiddling of Felipe Tobar, that would make acoustic
thrash godfathers Split Lip Rayfield grin demonically.
And “Want One” blazes down the dirt track
with a Stanley Brothers fireball energy driven by
Scorch’s clawhammer banjoing, and the it’s-safeto-
laugh-now adventure of meeting an intensely
inebriated fan while busking across the country.

But Scorch is far more than lightning for lightning’s
sake. Through 10 songs of high wire musicianship,
debilitating despair, wild-eyed hope, and sharpelbowed
views of social (in)justice, he deftly maintains
a balance of precise touch and texture, pop catchiness
and frenetic intensity. That Minutemen inspired
“jam econo” vibe embracing the freedom of art and
community as long as you’re working hard and bringing
your friends along for the ride?… Yeah, that’s here too.

He shows a keen ear for the Mekons’ trans-Atlantic
roots and marries it to the Avett Brothers’ big stage
sound on “Lost At Sea.” Likewise, there is depth
in the song’s lyrics during the cliffhanging, reallife
narrative of a best friend almost dying when
the HMS Bounty sank in Hurricane Sandy:

“When I heard of the wreck my heart left my chest/ tears
came rolling down/ the same sun shone through the
window/ I thought of a world without you around”

DIY show shakedowns parallel a down-and-outon-
Clout-Street message (“Every bossman is on
another bossman’s take/ There ain’t no free man
except the one you make”) on the vaudeville-via-
Eastern European klezmer door-kicker “Everybody
Out.” With its bittersweet imagery and mournful
harmonies, “Lonesome Low” goes beyond the blue
grass and into the deep woods. While the elegiac
french horn in “Poverty Draft” wouldn’t sound out
of place if it was played in a WWI trench, nor would
its message of the poor being the tools of war (“The
fight for freedom pays more than minimum wage”).

A punk rock banjo-wielding John Prine or Billy Bragg,
Al Scorch writes for the everyperson. Through his
acrobatically poetic politics, hopeful tales of love
lost (“Love After Death”), or cathartic takes on urban
chaos (“City Lullaby”), he pens rowdy campfire
stories, calls for action, and draws the epic from
the ordinary. Celebrate, right a wrong, or find your
path and go for it. It’s heavy shit, but so is life.

$13 ADV / $15 DOS


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