The Hackensaw Boys' punked-up bluegrass
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 15, 2003) – They’ve got names like Pee Paw, Shiner, Skeeter and Salvage, yet they’ve shared stages with rock and hip-hop bands including Cake, the Flaming Lips, De La Soul, Modest Mouse and Kinky.
On paper, the Hackensaw Boys are an eight-piece, acoustic old-time and bluegrass band. And on the surface at least, as heard on its recent live album, “Give It Back,” the Charlottesville, Va.-based outfit – which performs at Club Helsinki on Sunday night at 8 – plays acoustic music on mandolins, banjos, Dobros, and violins with a Southern flair. Yet there is something very youthful and contemporary about the group’s approach – as if the members of Green Day or the Offspring unplugged their axes, went into a phone booth, and reemerged as the Soggy Bottom Boys.
Not that the group purveys some kind of bluegrass/punk shtick. They deliver authentic bluegrass breakdowns, respectful versions of traditional fiddle tunes like “Cumberland Gap,” and soulful work spirituals like “Gospel Plow.”
Yet the group’s heart seems most at ease in the edgy darkness of Hank Williams’s “Ramblin’ Man,” and the musicians threaten to veer off into the bluegrass equivalent of speed-metal territory on any number of songs that swing with a brash recklessness bespeaking their youth.
Also at Helsinki this weekend, pop-folk singer-songwriter Susan Werner performs tonight at 8:30, with edgy folk-rock singer-songwriter Jonathan Pointer set to warm up the crowd.
Tomorrow night at 9, Pioneer Valley percussionist Tony Vacca brings his World Rhythms Ensemble, featuring Senegalese drummer Massamba Diop, of Afropop superstar Baaba Maal’s band, to Helsinki. Diop plays the tama, a talking drum that has been played by members of his family for many generations. Vacca’s World Rhythms project is a consortium of musicians who mix traditional African sounds with jazz, Latin, hip-hop and blues.
English folksinger Linda Thompson hadn’t been heard from in 17 years when she released her aptly-titled comeback album, “Fashionably Late” (Rounder), last fall. The acclaimed singer – who performs at the Iron Horse in Northampton with John Doyle and Teddy Thompson on Monday at 7 – had been silenced for much of the time by a stress-related illness that left her mute, of all things.
But from the sound of her singing on “Fashionably Late,” which ranges from the classic English folk revival sound of Fairport Convention on the murder ballad “Nine Stone Rig,” co-written by her son, Teddy Thompson, to the classic American pop sound with strings on “Paint and Powder Beauty,” co-written with Rufus Wainwright, Thompson’s gloriously clear and shimmering voice that first won over fans in the 1970s when she duetted with her then-husband, Richard Thompson, is fully intact. The album also includes guest appearances by Martin and Eliza Carthy, Van Dyke Parks, Kate Rusby, Rufus Wainwright, and includes a musical reunion with ex-husband Thompson.
Another long-awaited musical reunion touches down in the region next Wednesday, when Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Fleetwood Mac -- featuring four-fifths of the mid-1970s lineup that made the bestselling “Rumours” album -- performs at the Pepsi Arena in Albany.
The current version of the band -- whose reunion album, “Say You Will” (Reprise), began life as a Lindsay Buckingham solo album before turning into a group project -- features singer Stevie Nicks, as well as group co-founders Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, who first welcomed Buckingham and Nicks into the fold in 1974, when the group was already seven years old. Christine McVie, the other “Rumours”-era member of the group that produced seven multi-platinum albums, opted out of the reunion.
“Say You Will” features 18 new songs, chock full of vintage, “Rumours”-style pop songs as well as Nicks-ian mystical rockers and Buckingham’s more experimental efforts, akin to those that so mystified fans when Fleetwood Mac followed up “Rumours” with “Tusk” in 1979.
The group opened its current tour – its first since 1997 -- last week in Columbus, Ohio, with a 2 ½-hour, 24-song concert heavy on hits like “Dreams,” “Rhiannon,” “Gold Dust Woman” and “Go Your Own Way,” according to a review posted on a Dayton, Ohio, radio station website. The quartet is fleshed out by seven musicians, and the concert also included one of Mick Fleetwood’s trademark body-percussion solos.
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 3, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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