Meditations on Music :The Slocan Ramblers

This past Friday, March 31, Canadian bluegrass band The Slocan Ramblers played a nearly sold out show at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. It was the quartet’s first time in Wisconsin, and their eagerness to share their music with the new listeners was quite apparent, matched by an enthusiastic audience that danced in their seats, clapped along and listened attentively throughout. There is no doubt that the Ramblers would love to come back again soon, and are sure to be welcomed back with open arms.

Starting as a bar band that played from 10 p.m.–1 a.m. on Tuesday nights, the group honed their skills and began touring Canada, and soon parts of the US. Their history is important because, due to their origins, learning traditional tunes was a necessity and shapes a lot of what they do. Although this concert— like their others—was mostly covers, the band took charge of each one, convincingly playing them as their own. They also shared the names of the songs and artists throughout the set—a nice touch as it showed they wanted to help the audience learn more about the genre, especially with the bluegrass newcomers.

While sensitive to their roots, the Slocan Ramblers also played a handful of originals that showed off personal lyrics and intertwining, exciting compositions. One of these was “Elk River,” by bassist Alastair Whitehead, which blended nature and nostalgia with the group’s more delicate playing. Another, “Shut the Door”—which will be on the upcoming album they are hoping to record this summer—brought forth their use of careful and powerful layering. Each voice—banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar and upright bass—locked in with the other three, a beautiful intricacy interlaced between them.

The musicians also featured their composing and arranging chops in the covers they performed, staying true to the rich lineage before them while also adding their own musical ideas. A highlight of the first set that exemplified this was Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty,” which can be found on The Slocan Ramblers’ 2015 album, “Coffee Creek.” It began with a simple ostinato on mandolin, played gingerly by Adrian Gross, but with drive. Frank Evans, the band’s banjoist and lead singer soon called out over the simple riff, the two voices working off each other patiently and with ease. The mandolin riff was joined by banjo, and then guitar and bass, as the quartet began playing with the minimal idea, building off of and pulling at it. Evans’ solitary but hopeful singing reverberated over it all until they went into an instrumental jam, topped off with a banjo break that segued into “Honey Babe,” one of their burning originals.

Their overall approach to the music they played was a standout aspect, but their talent lay elsewhere as well—especially in their tight vocals. Ranging from a solo voice—typically coming from Evans, but Whitehead also led a few—to three-part harmony, the singing never failed to lock in harmonically while still retaining a spirited rawness that gave them more character. Not only did the vocals work perfectly with the instrumentals—their use of a single condenser mic between the three of them added an engaging visual aspect as well. To get to the mic to sing their parts, each respective musician expertly dodged headstocks and necks, making their way to the rich, close harmonies. Gross—who happened to not sing—later explained that the other three had rehearsed those stealthy maneuvers during their bar gigs on small stages. Seeing how their origins shaped them visually in addition to sonically was intriguing.

As if their superb musicianship and polished, robust singing was not enough, each member was also a highly skilled improviser. An important element in bluegrass, improvising specific to the genre often involves virtuosic and technically apt playing, and it was clear early on that each of the four possessed these abilities. Gross’s solos tended to play a lot with mischievously causing tension for the rest of the band, while Evans’s were almost more textural than melodic due to the speed at which he picked. Whitehead, unfortunately, did play one improvised solo that left me wishing he had more to give me, but his basslines throughout the concert were highly active and interesting to listen to. Darryl Poulsen’s solos on acoustic guitar were some of my favorites, as I had never, in person, seen someone play an acoustic in such a way. His improvisations were not far from Jerry Garcia’s acoustic work with David Grisman and others.

As part of their encore, they happened to play the traditional “Stealin’” in the style of Garcia and Grisman, closing the concert perfectly, in my opinion. Drawn to bluegrass and the like a few years ago, I considered Garcia and Grisman go-to’s near the beginning of my interest and have kept that opinion ever since, so it was wonderful hearing the band pay tribute to them. Aside from hoping to hear some familiar tunes—I lucked out with that one—I was just so happy to hear bluegrass live. It is not often one has the opportunity to hear such music in the Midwest—and especially to hear a group as highly-skilled and tied to tradition as the Slocan Ramblers—but I am overjoyed that I was able to spend the night listening to them.