For some reason, cover songs almost always seem to come across more jokey in folk/bluegrass mode than any other. There's just a certain innate good humor in upbeat romps with acoustic string instruments, especially so when the treatment is applied to formerly loud rock and roll songs. Perhaps it also feels that way because such pieces so often serve as cute one-off novelties in an otherwise straightfoward set. Drummer Phil Haynes and his "freewheeling jazz-grass string band" here, on the other hand, generally avoid twangy soundsthe lineup is cello/guitar/bass/drumsand never treat this set of beloved material with less than full sincerity.
That's not to say My Favorite Things (1960-1969)
doesn't have its share of humor. There are few performers who can
avoid laughs with James Brown
's "Sex Machine," and they even straight-facedly render the Star Trek
theme in jaunty technicolor glory. Still, those moments only reinforce the clear sense of fun and camaraderie that runs throughout the set. The crew reworks their chosen chestnuts, sometimes quite radically, always with affection and respect.
Haynes provides a nimble foundation behind the skins, though Jim Yanda
's guitar work and the deep-toned cello of Hank Roberts
serve more as the in-front leads with impressively versatile picking and bowing. Roberts has quite a range of his own in handling the occasional vocal duties, though at least half the time, one of their instruments takes the lead line and stands in for the words (which are sometimes unnecessary when the melodies get mutated anyway). It feels unfair not to single out Drew Gress
for praise as well, though he primarily does his job by not standing outhe and Haynes make a rhythm unit whose strength rests in tight and non-flashy interplay.
The arrangements through this double-disc set wander far and wide, making the results inevitably somewhat hit-and-miss (if interestingly so). The tie-dye haze of "California Dreaming" and "Surfer Girl" gets slowed down almost to avant-garde range. Otis Redding's "Respect" loses the verses in favor of a sort of jazzy barn dance. An eclectic Beatles mini-suite kicks off the second disc by concisely summarizing both the strengths and flaws of the album as a whole. Two bright portions of "Here Comes the Sun" make a sweet and charming highlight; an enervating slow drag through "Hey Jude," not so much.
With the band not quite being content with rock and pop chestnuts, a dose of John Coltrane
takes the late stretch from quasi-humorous to earnestly spiritual. You can hardly aim much higher than A Love Supreme
(Impulse!, 1964), and from the affectionate and understated "Resolution" motif to a spoken poem adapted from Trane's own devotional, this treatment manages to be just different and humble enough to stand on its own. They've still impressively saved the best for last; Roberts' expressive bowing wrings emotional shades out of "Both Sides Now" as eloquently as Joni Mitchell
ever has herself. The set has some crazy ups and downs, but it's these simply beautiful moments that linger most when it's over.
Hank Roberts: cello, vocals; Jim Yanda: guitar; Drew Gress: bass; Phil Haynes: drums.