When Portland is really humming – like firing-on-all-cylinders Portland – you can find sublime musicians playing in the corners of just about every venue in the city.
Right now, not so much, obviously.
When we’re there again, I’ll be looking for wherever Joe K. Walsh is going to be.
The powerhouse mandolin player who always seems to find great musicians to collaborate with – whether in founding Joy Kills Sorrow or jamming in the corner of Otto’s on Congress Street or on the road across the country with the Gibson Brothers – is back in Portland full time and itching to play.
Look for him Tuesday nights at Maine Craft Distilling as the weather warms, bringing together various talented friends and maybe even some of the Berklee School of Music kids who have been filtering into southern Maine, full of brilliant new ideas for acoustic music.
If you want a taste of what you’ll find there, check out “Bluegrass and the Abstract Truth,” Walsh’s newest collaboration, a team-up with bassist Greg Garrison of Leftover Salmon, fiddler Alex Hargreaves (Chris Thile’s “Live from Here,” Sarah Jarosz), and frequent partner guitarist Grant Gordy (they’ve done Mr. Sun and a couple other projects together).
The album is a clinic in thoughtful acoustic improvisation, running the gamut from bluegrass to classical to jazz, the title a play on “Blues and the Abstract Truth,” a seminal post-bop jazz record from 1961 led by saxophonist Oliver Nelson.
And just like that jazz tradition, the all-instrumental tracks are studies in deft musicianship and the art of listening. While there can be, in bluegrass, an element of turn-taking, as lead instruments cycle through to take their turn at the melody, the 11 pieces here are notable for the effortless ways in which the musicians hand the melody back and forth, coming together and breaking apart like a pack of starlings.
On the phone, Walsh said the chemistry you hear was almost instantaneous, discovered as part of an impromptu performance the four put together at the end of a “camp” in England (aspiring acoustic musicians of ages attend these sorts of things) a couple years back.
“It’s like we were all pushing in the same direction without having discussed it,” Walsh said. “It was pretty instantly apparent that we were all on the same page with the music we want to make and the communication we want to prioritize.”
Within a couple of months, they were recording in Boston in the summer of 2019: “It was a very live thing. We did it in two days and with not a ton of rehearsal. That’s the spirit of the band, just being present in the moment and responsive and conversational.”
You can hear this in the Walsh original “The Wolf Who Cried Boy,” where he plays the lower-register mandola and Garrison opens by bowing his stand-up bass, creating a dirge-like atmosphere. But by mid-song, he’s moved to single-note plucks and Hargreaves and Gordy have joined to infuse the song with energy, even while leaving the pacing the same. Then Garrison is soloing, Hargreaves droning out extended notes on his fiddle to take Garrison’s place before the full foursome comes back in to complete the piece as they started, individual instruments devolving into single-note chord cycles like they’re placing their instruments in neutral for the finish.
Gordy’s “The Elephant of Surprise” is similarly adventurous, with tons of great rockabilly licks in the low-end guitar and fun dynamics where Walsh and Hargreaves fire in like a chorus of Star Wars blasters to interrupt a contemplative guitar and then jump back out to let Garrison drive the melody in their sonic absence.
But it’s not all spacey jams.
Their “Smoky Mountain Rag” (Roy Acuff) is as classic bluegrass as you’ll find, a straight 4/4 number with all the G-runs you can handle. Hargreaves’ fiddle is probably cleaner and longer-bowed than a lot of sharp bluegrass fiddle you’ll hear, and Gordy’s guitar is probably more Dixieland than you’d expect, but the paired mando-fiddle break in the finish is smoking hot and the whole thing comes in under three minutes.
And bluegrass fans will likely be delighted by their take on the classic “Mill Valley Waltz,” by mando hero David Grisman and featuring the legendary Tony Rice in its most recognizable version. Here, the quartet infuses the piece with seemingly equal parts joy and sorrow – joy for the act of hearing it, sorrow in the knowledge that it has to end.
Putting the album on in the house, while you’re cooking or working or reading the paper, you may find yourself picking your head up – what did I just hear? – and noting a cool morning feels a couple degrees warmer. And if you stumble into someplace this summer and Walsh is in the corner with some similar folks doing similar things, you’ll instantly wonder, “who is THAT?”
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 weeks, 5 songs
Team-ups and throwbacks all over this week.
• SeepeopleS, “It Feels Heavy” — With an artistic and sharply produced new video that shares some aesthetics with Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” this piece dives into that tradition of ’90s alternative rock.
• Kristina Kentigian (featuring Nodoz), “Meet Me in Denver” — A sultry slice of R&B, Kentigian purrs an intoxicating invite, arching up into her falsetto for the chorus, and Nodoz accepts it: “You sendin’ pictures, I want to be there to take them with you.”
• Hiss & Chambers, “Under the Milky Way” — Long-time alternative vets Shawn Saindon and Jason Hjort team for a loving take on the Church’s alt-rock classic, with an atmospheric video. Who knew Saindon could sing that low?
• Kenny Login, “Sale-a-Bration” — One of the many noms-de-plume under which Chris Burns makes music, this is an ’80s synth celebration, twisting instrumentals that exist right on the edge of familiar, always with an insidious edge.
• Graphic Melee and Renee Coolbrith, “All I Need” — Coolbrith turns in a crisp croon, jazzy and precise, to bookend a rumbling and gritty rap take from Melee. Would love to hear more of this collaboration.
— Sam Pfeifle