Ghost of Paul Revere: Believe

The Ghosts are coming

Get ready to Believe in Paul Revere

Ghost of Paul Revere don’t waste any time on Believe, their debut full-length. From the very first vocal notes on the opening “After Many Miles,” they announce that this is the best collection of harmonies since Tumbling Bones’ Schemes in the summer of 2012 [this published in 2014]. They are tasteful, measured, precise, and sometimes thrilling.

This opener serves as both introduction and a flag in the ground, as they rotate through each of the three main vocalists – Griffin Sherry, Max Davis, and Sean McCarthy – with a solo a capella verse (well, there’s a stomp-clap rhythm by way of accompaniment) and then come together for harmonied chorus: “Oh, lover, I’ll see you there/ Waiting in the willows with your auburn hair.” If that doesn’t catch you attention, don’t bother with the rest of the disc. This is what they do and who they are and they’re all in.

Because they’ve got a banjo player (Davis), Paul Revere have maybe been pegged as bluegrassy, or at least tied in with the stringband locals, like the Tricky Britches and North of Nashville they played with on New Year’s, but they’re often much more in line with bands like Head and the Heart, or Typhoon, which put a lot more emphasis on vocals, have less traditional song structures, and are often more rooted in the rock tradition.

“San Antone” starts slow with a repeating guitar run that stays low and then arcs up for the harmonics behind a chanted, “I lost my love in the heat of San Antone/ I found my love in the cold of the great white north.” Right. Pretty trad. But then the tune ramps right up at the 1:20 mark into what you think is the chorus on the first listen, but never actually slows down, like quick indie rock without plugging in.

This is also our first introduction to Matt Young’s harmonica, which here is really bassy and low down for a mouth harp. The repeating “whooah-whoah” vocal bit it introduces will have those who’ve tired of Of Monsters and Men and what some see as the shambolic trend in dirty-hippy bands to cringe, but it suits me just fine, and when they ratchet the pace up yet again, it’s pretty damn hot:

“I watched my lover roll me over like a riverstone … You’ve got pain in your bones/ You know you are not alone.”

They shake things up a bit later in the 11-song album, though. “The Storm” would fit nicely on a Mallett Brothers record, opening with an isolated banjo and dressed-up vocals, but then settling into a guitar strum and transitioning to a song with a piece of grass in its teeth.

Sure, they walk an anachronistic line like a lot of other stringbands, but when they sing “my father died in his house/ It’s all he left to me,” you really do imagine a house bleached out on the great plains, with waves of auburn grass and rolling hills and just maybe a solitary tree next to it with an old tire swing, and a fading white picket fence around the whole thing.

It’s most obvious here, too, how the harmonica is often playing the shuffling role usually taken up by the fiddle in this kind of band. But Paul Revere seem to revel in throwing curveballs, like the up-stroke rhythm they introduce late in this song, reggae-bluegrass for a few measures.

And “Fire in the Sky”? It’s basically a Sabbath tune played with acoustic instruments, fueled by Southern rock and stuff about how when the flood comes he’s going to make it out alive and that the devil can come and take him and whatnot. There just aren’t any big stacks of amps and the a capella finish might be outside Ozzie’s wheelhouse, but that harmonica brings the whole thing back to metal’s bluesy origins.

If there’s a misstep here, it’s “Hey Girl,” probably the closest thing to contemporary country at least in its material (every top-40 country tune seems to have the phrase “hey girl” in it) and very similar to early Old Crow Medicine Show, with Young playing the role of Ketch Secor’s fiddle mania. The repeated three-part build of “hey” could use some subtlety and the fever they work up falls a little flat.

But they certainly have the feel of “Funeral,” with a particularly melancholy tone in the banjo and pretty falsetto in the finish of the open. At times, the vocal arrangements are as delicate as any string parts Dave Noyes is writing for Rustic Overtones. And while the electric bass doesn’t quite work perfectly for “Woodman’s Stead,” it’s still a great change-up for the album, a quick waltz with Celtic undertones and a staunch determination: “I’m going to tear down your walls, until I have you all.”

The cowboy giddy-up of “Andra” makes for a wonderfully sad loner tune, pulling off the difficult task of being simple and working class without being condescending, and it’s mirrored by the appropriately closing “This Is the End,” which has some shades of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, with Avett Brothers flavor.

Without question, this is an early contender for album of the year locally and if there’s any justice people will come to know this record far and wide.

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.