Bluegrass is having a bit of a moment.
Not just string band acoustic-driven stuff that happens to have a banjo, but the traditional arrangements and stylings that were driven by the genre’s creators – Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Del McCoury, and the like.
Rolling, three-fingered banjo. Jagged, short-stroke fiddles. Three-part harmonies and lots of instrumental breaks at high speeds. Not “indie” or hip, more like straight-ahead and sorta square. Hokey, even.
Heck, Billy Strings was just on the Grammy Awards and, despite a contemporary look, there are few who pay homage to the masters of the bluegrass craft as he does.
Here in Maine, Strings sold out two straight shows not long ago. And after a few years where a person might wonder if there’d ever be a new local bluegrass band again, Joe K. Walsh is leading a whole passel of folks who performed in March at One Longfellow Square as part of an “East Bayside Bluegrass Family Reunion” and brought at least 24 players to the stage. And the Mill Burners are backing people at Blue like Jerks of Grass used to do in days of old at the Free Street Taverna, like a house bluegrass band.
Then there is Steadman’s Landing. There’s an inclination to call it a side project of the Mallet Brothers Band, maybe even a supergroup, but that’d be selling them short. They’re something closer to a phenomenon.
“We’ve been playing gigs with the Mallets for a long time,” said Massachusetts singer-songwriter Jake Hill, who gigs out in full-band mode as Jake Hill and Deep Creek. “I think we played our first show together down on Block Island in 2010.”
One day, mired in the pandemic, Hill saw Malletts fiddler Andrew Martelle and bassist Nick Leen messing around with some string band stuff in a video, so he sent them a text: “We should start a bluegrass band.”
And, wouldn’t you know it, Will Mallett plays a mean bluegrass banjo.
The result is “kind of a joke band, kinda not,” as they put it on “The Ballad of Steadman’s Landing,” which opens their brand-new second album, “Steady’z 2,” and serves as an origin story.
“That line came from Andrew’s 12-year-old son,” said Hill, who has adopted the moniker Jacob Steadman as the band’s frontman. He was in the backseat with friends as the first album played. “Jetpack Man” came on and the boys started laughing and Wilder says, “this is my dad’s new band. It’s kind of a joke band.”
“I was like, ‘yeah, I guess we are,’” Hill said. “The songs are funny.”
And while bluegrass can certainly be a bit proper – just look at the fine suits the recently departed and Madawaska-born Roland White wore in his Kentucky Colonels – there’s also a strong through-line of comedy and silliness that is woven into the bluegrass tradition, something Steve Martin honed in on and has been plied by the likes of the Cleverlys and the Moron Brothers more recently.
For their parts, Steadman’s Landing also lean into the absurdist and sarcastic tendencies of the punk and ska scenes where Hill cut his teeth. So, like Joey and Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone, Mallett is Billy Steadman and Martelle is Randy Steadman and Leen is Ye Ole Steadman and all of them are the progeny of a mythical Grandma Steadman.
“We just kept making up these stories about Grandma Steadman in this group chat we have,” Hill explained. “We’ve gotten like three or four songs from that group chat. We’re not taking it too seriously. Playing with Will and Andrew and Nick, with their mastery of music, it’s all just become so easy. We had one rehearsal before the first album, and then just didn’t have any rehearsals before this second one.”
They simply convinced Acadia Recording’s Jason Phelps (a prodigious bluegrass guitarist when he’s of the mind) to come to them when they could get together and make it sound good.
Luckily, the album is better for some of its ramshackle nature (“We never want it to lose that new-song smell,” Hill joked). Bluegrass is a community thing, about the camaraderie and performance as much as hitting every single correct note, and Steadman’s play up the energy and joy over the precision that can be an emphasis on some contemporary bluegrass albums (Strings’ stuff can sometimes seem unfair). Rather than methodically ensuring every song has breaks between verses and articulated arrangements, sometimes it seems like Mallett and Martelle are just playing heavy licks and leads at all times, lending things a manic feel.
The jokes, too, are balanced by workingman realities, odes to guys who like to hang out in the garage and drink beer, their trusty dogs, and the Russian bots that fool you into love affairs on the internet. “Friends Are Never a Burden” – just Hill and fingerstyle guitar to open and then joined by dripping dobro, light banjo, and searing fiddle – may even be downright touching.
By the album’s end, one thing’s abundantly clear: Grandma Steadman raised these boys right.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
2 weeks, 5 songs
• Andrew LaVogue, “Sweet and Simple” — An instrumental piece that lives up to its name, LaVogue sounds here like he’s playing his electric guitar in an empty room, full of single-note runs up the fretboard and hammer-ons.
• Lady Lamb, “Ivy” — Her first release since 2020, this shows Lady Lamb returning to some of the big-band sounds of “After,” mixed in with a world-weariness that stretches her vocals out and tinges everything with sadness. Can’t wait for the full album.
• Eric Bettencourt and Spose, “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” — This is a truly great cover, added to Bettencourt’s 2019 “Weightless Embrace, Vol. 2” and featuring bawdy blues piano and a full verse from Spose inspired by the entire Beatles catalog. A delight.
• Connor Garvey, “All These Things” — With vibrating doubled vocals in the opening verse, this folk-rock has a burn to it. The arrangement and guitar break, especially, are a ’70s throwback. You’ll sing along with the refrain at the finish.
• Enigmatheory, “Lightfight: Stories from the Truth Machine” — New operatic metal from Ronnie Lee, whose new band features Scott Young and John Chenard, this is a futuristic fantasy for fans of “Operation: Mindcrime” and Primus.
— Sam Pfeifle