[4 February 2010]
Few musical styles are quite as polarizing as that of jam bands. The haters deplore the never-ending and meandering solos, the emphasis on instrumental improvisation over singing and melody, and the conspicuous uniformity of the fans, with their emphasis on drugs and identical dancing. The lovers argue for the unmistakable musical prowess of the players, the exciting unpredictability of the never-the-same-set-twice aesthetic, and the unmatched fun-loving and free-spirited vibe that connects the band and the audience. What’s interesting is how few people are on the fence with regard to jam bands. The haters want nothing to do with them, and the lovers are often literal followers who listen to little else. Sure, I’m generalizing, but just try insulting someone’s favorite jam band by, say, writing an unfavorable review of Phish’s new album.
If you’re among the haters, there’s no band more egregiously jammy than String Cheese Incident, who took modernist, rock-influenced bluegrass (“newgrass”) and stretched songs into loose, jazzy, extemporaneous roots-psychedelia (“jamgrass”), on which the band would noodle around for 15 minutes or longer per song. For true believers, the band’s eclecticism and first-rate musicianship was thrilling, but others felt mauled by it all. On the other hand, even the haters, in this case bluegrass purists, could get behind the other powerhouse jamgrass band of the late ‘90s, Leftover Salmon. Like String Cheese Incident, Salmon were capable of broad musical diversity, but they generally reigned in wayward jammy-ness in favor of working more songs into each show, many of them fun and surprising covers, led by one of the great frontmen and party-starters in roots music, Vince Herman.
Both Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident have been on hiatus for the last few years, although both bands occasionally reunite for one-off shows. In their absence, two of their respective key members have joined forces, Salmon’s mandolinist/singer Drew Emmitt and String Cheese’s guitarist/singer Bill Nershi. They’re cleverly named the Emmitt-Nershi Band for New Country Blues, a set of tunes, most of them freshly-penned by the pair. So what will this new configuration do to appeal to both the lovers and the haters? Drive impressively down the middle, toggling between fairly traditional bluegrass on one song and idiosyncratic vanguard jams the next. Conventionalists will be happy to hear the album open with a good, fast, banjo-driven barn-burner, the title song. While the band will take plenty of turns off the beaten path, they announce with their opener their intention to keep things within the great New Grass Revival continuum with one foot reverently in bluegrass history and one foot in progressive experimentation.
The other thing that’s clear here is that these two newgrass heavy-hitters have mighty recruiting power to bring in the hottest young pickers in the game. The Emmitt-Nershi Band is technically a quartet, with official members Andy Thorn on banjo (the most dynamic banjo discovery since Noam Pikelny) and guitarist/bassist Tyler Grant. In addition, the band gets help on fiddle from Jason Carter and on dobro from the excellent Rob Ickes. Emmitt and Nershi themselves are both highly accomplished players. While taking lightning-fast solos are live calling cards for these kinds of bands, and something the two of them do deftly, the Emmitt-Nershi Band shows refreshing restraint by keeping solos relatively brief and sticking to carefully arranged instrumentals like Neshi’s gyspsy-jazz “Surfing the Red Sea” and Emmitt’s Latin-flavored “Mango Tango”. The musicians are given room to lay foxy runs over thorny chord progressions, but these songs never feel like excuses to meander, never straying too far from the head during the explorations. “Mango Tango” gets a little frenetic as it picks up steam at the end, but again, the band occasionally scratches the itch of jam enthusiasts while staying dedicated to measured accessibility.
For all of the record’s outrageously great playing—check out those solos on “Restless Wind”, for instance—the album is not without drawbacks. Most obviously, New Country Blues is not a particularly songful album in terms of vocal melodies and lyricism. Nothing stands out as exceedingly memorable or singable. (Exception: the breezy “Wait Until Tomorrow”.) Hindering the matter is the fact that neither Emmitt nor Nershi is a particularly strong singer, the Achilles heel for so many jam bands. Emmitt is the more effective of the two, with his clean tenor, but he’s unable to generate much power in his voice, so he’s frequently overwhelmed by the instrumentation. Nershi has the kind of pinched warble familiar to fans of Jerry Garcia or Railroad Earth’s Todd Sheaffer, and the harmonies Emmitt and Nershi create are milky and hazy, at times lovely, at others less assured.
The two leads throw Grant and Thorn one songwriting bone each, “I Come from the Country” and “Flight of the Durban”, respectively. Neither is a song-of-the-year candidate. New Country Blues‘s penultimate song is Emmitt’s “This Is the Time”, which is odd since anyone likely to buy the record already has a nearly identical version of the song on Leftover Salmon’s Euphoria album. While it’s a fine song and performance, it still feels like filler. the Emmitt-Nershi Band might have waited until they had a handful of more new tunes to bring to the project. Those concerns aside, New Country Blues is an overall satisfying accomplishment that offers more than enough to satisfy the lovers and perhaps enough to convert a few of the haters.