The Slocan Ramblers
4 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
The Slocan Ramblers, an energetic four-piece bluegrass outfit, have garnered positive praise for their neo-traditional approach to timeless southern-styled mountain music.
With a couple years of heavy gigging having worn out their soles, the Ramblers return with their sophomore effort, produced by bluegrass and old-time veteran Chris Coole (Foggy Hogtown Boys, Lonesome Ace Stringband.)
Canada is weird…when it comes to bluegrass music. It is surprising to outsiders that we don’t all always know what is going on within the industry across the country: take The Slocan Ramblers as an example. Despite their extensive press coverage in eastern Canada, a well-received debut, extensive gigs across the country and into the U.S., and rising profile, until I noticed their name associated with a regional festival later this summer, I had never encountered the group. Alberta, where I live, is some 3500 kilometres (2200 miles) west of Toronto, out of which the Slocan Ramblers are based. Ontario has an entire bluegrass circuit the likes of which I can’t quite fathom, but which is wholly separate from the modest western Canada bluegrass community with which I am more familiar.
I was therefore considerably intrigued upon receiving Coffee Creek for review, and after only a couple songs went online and purchased their 2013 debut, Shaking Down the Acorns.
That first album was highlighted by songs both largely unfamiliar (Jonathan Byrd and Corin Raymond’s “The Law and Lonesome” and “Hallelujah Shore” from Kevin Breit) and perhaps overly familiar (“Wild Bill Jones” and “Tragic Love”), but all executed with obvious verve and prowess. The instrumental tunes presented were similarly excellent, the original title track being somewhat spectacular.
For their second recording, the band has reached another level, and you have got to love a young band who even knows who Dave Evans is, let alone ‘gets’ him! More on that in a bit.
No doubt, these guys can play. They have an unassuming approach to bluegrass, one that doesn’t explode in your face. Their arrangements are clean and they certainly know how to balance themselves in the recording studio; instruments come to the fore smoothly and with precision. Vocally, the group is less distinctive, but that shouldn’t be taken to suggest the listener is shortchanged. Lead singer Frank Evans isn’t entirely high or particularly lonesome, nor is he a shouter or a belter; he sings comfortably and without avarice. He is confident enough to just lay the words out there, and always seems to be winking at the listener as if to say, “Now, get ready for this bit of harmony: you’re gonna love it.”
The album, rather cheekily, opens with mandolinist Adrian Gross’s sparkling title cut. It takes some brass to kick-off a modern bluegrass album with an instrumental, even one as fiery as “Coffee Creek,” but the Ramblers pull it off with assurance. With heavy bass notes from Alastair Whitehead providing propulsion, and featuring Gross and Evans in a neat mando-banjo duel, the tune sets the table for nearly 50 minutes of exciting, sometimes introspective, acoustic bluegrass.
They slip into Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” next, not the last time they’ll visit a Dave Evans recording on the album. They wisely crank the ratchet by melding Frank Evans’ neat “Honey Babe” with the well-known folk song, a suitable complement. A couple tracks later, Dave Evans’ “Call Me Long Gone” is revisited: while remaining faithful to the spirit of the 1980 recording, the Ramblers give the song a bit more bounce, making the track brighter if no less blue.
Frank Evans appears to be predominately a clawhammer stylist, so it isn’t a surprise that they take a run through “Groundhog” and “Streamline Cannonball,” the only song on which guitarist Darryl Poulsen sings the lead. The early-19th century seaman’s tale “Rambling Sailor” is also interpreted, providing a satisfying juxtaposition to the mostly Appalachian-fired material.
As on their previous release, the band has come up with several tasteful instrumentals, four of which stem from Gross. “April’s Waltz” begins tentatively with purposefully scattered mandolin notes and trills, before blooming into a unusual but sensitive and evocative full-band showpiece. His “Lone Pine” is more conventional, and one wonders if there is a Lenny Breau influence at work here in Poulsen’s guitar approach.
One criticism offered is that I would much rather hear a bluegrass band singing of their own Canadian environment (as on “Elk River”) and experience rather than of the “Mississippi Shore” or of Dust Bowl vignettes of those working in peach and prune orchards of Arizona and California.
The Slocan Ramblers are a versatile bluegrass band. Offering three capable lead singers with Evans taking the vast majority, and all four members creating interesting and engaging songs and tunes while demonstrating wide-ranging instrumental talents, the group appears to be well-poised to continue their ascension within a very crowded ‘left of center’ bluegrass field.