Laura Cantrell and the Lonesome Brothers

Mandolinist John Graboff and Laura Cantrell

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 29, 2004) – When they were at their best, which was for much of their show on Wednesday night at Club Helsinki, Laura Cantrell and her band functioned much like a chamber group. It was easy to forget that the music they were playing was old-time country, and instead sit back and marvel at the sympathetic, supportive manner with which the string quartet and singers accompanied each other.

This isn’t to say that Cantrell wasn’t a strong presence or focal point; she was. Rather, it was a tribute to the all-acoustic ensemble the singer-guitarist assembled to back her -- John Graboff on mandolin and guitar and vocals, guitarist-vocalist Mark Spencer, and bassist Jeremy Chatzky – and the easygoing arrangements they played. While they were all virtuosic players who could easily have taken flashy bluegrass solos, they favored the ensemble approach, rolling over and under and around each other and Cantrell especially, adding dimensionality and texture to her classic-style country ballads, tearjerkers and honky-tonk numbers.

A former Wall Street analyst and longtime radio host, Cantrell seemed wholly in her element as an old-fashioned country crooner. Moreso than on her recordings, her piercing voice boasted depth and range; while it was comfortably at home as an alto, it had no problem making leaps into the soprano sphere. Hers was an organic, matter-of-fact voice -- some combination of Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton -- and she wisely held back and saved up those leaps for when the lyric or emotion required them.

Her band was equally, almost deceptively matter-of-fact, but they knew when to push, when to lay back, and when to roll over at the end of a phrase. They added a touch of Tex-Mex to “If It’s All the Same to You,” and hinted at Roger McGuinn-inspired folk-rock on “Not the Tremblin’ Kind.” Graboff and Spencer also added pitch-perfect, high-lonesome harmonies, with a hint of gospel on “The Mountain Fern,” a song about Molly O’Day.

Guitarist Jim Armenti and bassist Ray Mason, who together comprise the Lonesome Brothers, warmed up the healthy crowd for Cantrell. The Pioneer Valley duo traded off lead vocals, singing their original, country-flavored roots-rock songs about drinking, dogs, music and country life with wit and distinction. Their instrumental work was dazzling, eliciting more music from the guitar-bass duo format than many bands do with two or three times the number.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 1, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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