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still do that, although there’s no cover nowadays, the beers cost a bit more, and the dart boards and pool table have been replaced by candles and ambiance.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.

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 11.48.09 PM

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.

Jerks of Grass: Come on Home

Home, at last

Jerks of Grass deliver a disc 10 years in the making

And you thought it was a long wait for that Phantom Buffalo record. While it may have taken those indie popsters three years to get their record out, fans of Jerks of Grass have been waiting a solid decade. Other than two tracks on the Greetings from Area Code 207 series (2000’s “Highway Paved with Pain” and 2001’s “Whitewater”), there has been nothing to bring home and put on the stereo for fans of what has been at times Portland’s hardest-working band.

Admittedly, I am one of a very few people who has a copy of a full-length disc the band recorded back in 2000, with the late John Farrell on fiddle, along with Carter Logan on banjo, Ronnie Gallant on mandolin, Jason Phelps on guitar, and Tom Jacques on bass. I still listen to it, a disc full of fire-and-brimstone bluegrass and a hell of a lot of fun. That disc was never released, though. The band simply weren’t happy with it.

I think it struck them that it was bluegrass like a hammer to the skull, and that they were, deep down inside, better than that. For all the fast-picking virtuosity that would still impress more than just the casual listener, it wasn’t anything special. Just good players ripping up standards, really. [Here it is. My tastes have apparently changed over the years. I’m a simpler man, now, I think.]

Now, this weekend, the Jerks, differently constituted, will release Come on Home, a clarion call to their fans that, yes, they’ve got things figured out now and they’re ready for some of those bright lights and big stages.

jerksofgrass_cdThis is perhaps most poignantly made clear by track 10 on the disc, “In the House of Tom Bombadil,” a song off the self-titled Nickel Creek album (when they looked like they were about 12, but played like they were in their prime). This song is flat-out mind-blowing, especially live, with intricate melodic runs and time changes galore. And it’s the kind of song that put Nickel Creek and Chris Thile, the mandolin player who penned the song, on the map as major talents. Here, I think it’s something of a statement by Phelps, who has long been known as a stand-out bluegrass flatpick guitarist, probably among the 50 best guitar players in the country. Know him now as a musician who’s legitimately phenomenal on two instruments, maybe more — this song is, as we say here in Maine, wicked hard, and is exactly the kind of song Phelps and Logan had in mind when they took the band in a different direction in 2006, parting ways with Jacques and Gallant, adding Kris Day (bassist with Harpswell Sound, King Memphis, etc.) and Melissa Bragdon (a classically trained fiddler), and remaking the band from one previously known as “faster than Metallica” (unfortunate words from the third-ever issue of the Portland Phoenix) to one understood to be flat-out virtuosic.

With Day, they’ve added yet another wrinkle: original tunes. Like the Portland Symphony Orchestra, the Jerks were for a long time just a really talented cover band. Now, however, they’ve debuted two terrific tunes that also debut Day’s vocal talents. He’s a good singer, with depth of feeling and a hearty tone you can swim in. “Something” is the better of the two, a waltz where Day actually plays guitar and Phelps takes over stand-up bass (the bastard — he never stops showing off, really), while Logan handles the dobro (he also proves himself a master on the guitar, later) and Bragdon creates an accordion-like drone with nuance-filled bowstrokes on the fiddle.

These songs are vitally important to understanding the Jerks as artists, rather than incredibly talented performers of other people’s songs. There are times when you wonder — while listening to an impeccably rendered “Stomping Grounds,” say, replacing Jeff Coffin’s tenor sax with Bragdon’s fiddle and bringing more warmth to the song than Bela Fleck, Future Man, and Victor Wooten ever managed — whether anyone might create the same band, by simply practicing the same riffs for hundreds and hundreds of hours.

But the originals inspire you to listen more closely to their rendering of the Fleck tune, to listen to the way Bragdon so wonderfully holds down the rhythmic duties along with the guitar and bass, making Future Man’s “drums” seem downright silly, the banjo seeming to move with every power that inertia has ever granted.

There are any number of great choices here, to which only true artists could lay claim: the selection of “Twin Peaks,” by stand-out Czech mandolinist Radim Zenkl, a name casual bluegrass fans should latch onto; the Texas swing of “Foggy Mountain Special,” written by Gladys Stacey and Louise Certain, though made popular by their husbands, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and offering an opportunity for Day to show off a slap-heavy bass break; the “Tennessee Waltz” that shows off Bragdon’s long bow strokes and pure pitch so well, written by Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart (as legend has it, on the back of a matchbook) in 1947.

Go look Pee Wee up some time. The guy was the first to use an amplifier or drums on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. The Jerks are the kind of band that know and respect that.

For sentiment’s sake, “Why You Been Gone So Long” is probably my favorite song on the album, just for it’s pure singalong quality, and the great, great delivery Phelps has always had on “There’s nothing I want to do/So I guess I’ll just get stoned/And let the past paint pictures in my head/Drink a fifth of Thunderbird and try to write a sad, sad song/Tell me baby now why you been gone so long.” It’s by the now-deceased Nashville songwriter Mickey Newbury, who wrote for everyone from Elvis Presley to Kenny Rogers, but was known as one of the first Nashville outsiders, independently recording some 15 of his own records.

In many ways, the Jerks have always been outsiders in Portland, despite haunting just about every club the city’s ever offered. Though they’re beloved by nearly everyone who’s ever seen them, and are universally recognized by their peers as some of the city’s finest musicians, they’ve made the basement bar that is the Bramhall Pub their home away from home for more than a decade, no show ever really being anything more noteworthy than another.

It’s time to come out into the sunlight, guys. This record is something special.

Photo credit: Matthew Robbins