Jerks of Grass: Jerks 2K: Live at Big Sound

15 years and counting

A throwback from Jerks of Grass

What’s 15 years? Remember being worried about the Y2k bug? No, I don’t really either.

But I remember walking down the stairs to the Bramhall Pub and encountering a bouncer asking me for two bucks to see Jerks of Grass, along with about 50 other people in the West End of Portland every Thursday night.

What’s remarkable is that you can still do that, although there’s no cover nowadays, the beers cost a bit more, and the dart boards and pool table have been replaced by candles and ambiance. I did it just a couple weeks back. After an inexplicable hiatus where the Bramhall sat vacant, featuring a sojourn to Bayside Bowl and other points, the Jerks are still there.

Well, one Jerk, anyway. Carter Logan, banjo player and sometime dobro player (I’ll always think of him as the former, despite even a go at the fiddle for a little while there), is the only one left. Fiddler John Farrell killed himself in 2003. A few years later, Carter and guitarist Jason Phelps led a palace coup and bassist Tom Jacques and mando player Ronnie Gallant went off and played with some other folks.

And then earlier this year, Phelps left for California, just as he’d done a few years back to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. This time he found himself in LA.

Heck, even fiddler Melissa Bragdon is currently off on maternity leave.

Yet they solider on, Carter joined this week by fiddler Ed Howe, bassist Kris “King” Day, and guitarist Lincoln Meyers. More than capable all. They are still a marvel.

But maybe you want to relive the turn of the century, a time when Jerks of Grass were also playing the Basement, and the Free Street Taverna, and the Old Port Tavern (yep, they used to do that kind of thing there. Kudos to them for outlasting just about everyone). Glad you’ll be, then, to lay your hands on Jerks 2k, the resurrection of a long-lost, 15-year-old recording with Joe Brien at Big Sound they once deemed not good enough to release, finally put out into the wild by Charlie Gaylord’s Cornmeal Records via Bull Moose.

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Seriously. It will baffle you when you hear it. There are more good notes played on this album in 49 minutes than you’ll hear in a dozen sets by just about any other band. This delivers on all the promise of acoustic instrumentation, vibrant and present and with body you can reach out and touch.

Over the years, the Jerks became a legitimately worldclass ensemble. There were times when I wasn’t sure if I was watching a string quartet or a bluegrass band. Which is to say their performances were downright virtuosic.

In 2000, though, they were just an awesome fucking band.

Which means they could sing, too, and it’s great to hear them kick the album off with an a capella intro to “If You Ever Change Your Mind,” a lamenting song with a hop to it that I’ve never heard anyone else play but them. I’m not sure if they wrote it or not. It doesn’t seem to exist on the Internet. [Note: Thanks to Rebecca Minnick for the head’s up: It’s on the Seldom Scene’s Scenic Roots. Find it here.] It’s not the Crystal Gale tune, that’s for sure. Generally, they’ve played traditionals and “covers,” though that’s not the way we think of them in the bluegrass environment (they recorded two of Day’s songs on 2008‘s Come on Home, released as a four-piece in 2008) and I always assumed it was their arrangement of someone else’s piece.

Either way, Farrell’s lead vocal is laser-like, at the high end of his range but never in the falsetto. The Jerks do high and lonesome, but they never arch into that maudlin and piercing tone that so many of the old-timers preferred. They pay homage to Bill Monroe, but they were progressive way before this stringband revolution produced the Brothers and Sons and Medicine Shows, and back in 2000 they still retained most of their original influences in classic rock and pop.

Farrell would tell you he hated bluegrass. And it’s not surprising, considering he played left handed on a standard fiddle, down by his chest, and never went in much for the hard shuffle or aping Kenny Baker. No, he liked a lilting melody.

Just like the waltzing “Before I Met You,” which breaks my heart a little more every time I hear it. Farrell’s fiddle is just so damn serious, with Logan’s banjo flitting around it. The “oooh-ooh” backing vocals are borrowed from the Vandells and Phelps turns in one of his more thoughtful leads, with a G-run that joins with Gallant’s cascading lead like water flowing over ice.

Phelps and Gallant can bring it, too, though, with powerful turns in “Little Liza Jane,” a tune Doc Watson made famous as a singer but is here instrumental, and “Whitewater,” a legendarily difficult piece from Tony Rice and Bela Fleck. And yeah, the Tony Rice and Bela Fleck version is cleaner, but I hope I’m not being too pretentious when I complain that it’s too clean, and that I’d take the Jerks any day. It’s more appealing to dive into something when it’s not just completely otherworldly and seemingly sanitized.

Logan’s top-of-the-fretboard banjo in the second banjo solo is precise, and clear, but it’s also muscular and charged. The banjo-mandolin pairing that closes “Whitewater” and the album as a whole? Just too much. Too much to handle. Absurd. Thrilling. And right on the edge.

Maybe it’s just the warmth of the Big Sound studio. Or the mastering job done by Lance Vardis. Or nostalgia. Or maybe it’s the aesthetic that allowed the Jerks to get away with sweatpants and T-shirts and Jacques’ ‘fro and never giving into that whole bluegrass schtick.

That’s why it’s just so apt that Gaylord has listed one of the songs here as “Nacho Tres.” Yes, that’s the Jerks version of “Natchez Trace” for sure, a song that features best-ever-type performers Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas alongside Rice and Fleck in its original version. “Tres” ain’t nearly that pretty and delicate. Logan’s banjo is resonant and rolling and full of circular notes and Farrell’s fiddle is the smooth and languid carelessness of rebellion as a counterpart. Gallant tops it off with a giddy-up rhythm that morphs into a 4/4 whir of right hand.

The build and crescendo to the finish is truly a treat in person. Do they still pull that out with the new lineup? I doubt Carter would have it any other way. Head down to the Bramhall some Thursday and check it out.

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