Friday, October 17, 2008


On Wednesday night, I rushed into the city from Princeton to get down to the Highline Ballroom to see one of the hottest acts out on the bluegrass circuit -- Cherryholmes. A family band, fans of this group have been watching four kids grow up on stage over the course of the past nine years and propelled the band to be the 2005 Entertainer of the Year at the International Bluegrass Music Awards. I had seen them back in the summer of 2005 at the Mineral Bluegrass Festival in Mineral, Virginia, where they had put on a memorable evening set.

The opening act was the Bear Mountain Pickers, and they took the stage as if it were there show, launching into a rollicking version of "The Hobo Song" and not holding anything back. Featuring brothers David and Jonathan Cantor on guitar/banjo and saxophone/clarinet respectively, the group has a solid jam band sound, armed also with drums, bass and New Yorker Rob Hecht playing some fine fiddle -- they build on bluegrass but are not a bluegrass band.

Although the originals left me a little flat, I did like the bouncy "Spent All My Money on a Banjo" and "Early Morning Train," a song about commuting into New York from New Jersey -- the opposite of my commute -- that had a bit of a John Hartford feel (a la the magnificent "Tall Buildings") and did not have anything to do with Gordon Lightfoot. Their cover of Bob Dylan's "Mama You've Been on My Mind" was played at warp speed and a little loose and had a drum solo but was a pretty nice effort.

Announcing that they originally had been known as The Emergency Wedding Band because they would be called the day before the wedding and throw together some Crosby, Stills and Nash covers to sing while the couple walked down the aisle, the band tried its best at some three-part harmonies with the drummer coming out from behind his kit.

My friend Dan who was with me really enjoyed their set; I was left a little less convinced.

Cherryholmes played a very nice and long set. They opened up with "Don't Believe," the title track from their latest CD, a straight-ahead, hard-driving bluegrass song. Banjo-playing daughter Cia is well-known for her vocal chops -- she seems to have studied Rhonda Vincent quite well, in my opinion -- but I was really blown away by 14-year old Molly Kate's alto on the song "Goodbye." She has a thick and rich voice that I hope we'll get to hear more of in the future.

Molly Kate plays fiddle in the group, and her 20-year-old brother B.J. will switch between mandolin and fiddle. When both of them had their violins in hand, they were capable of producing some really sweet music. The instrumental "Sumatra" was of particular note. When they played a fiddle, mandolin and guitar version of a Stephane Grapelli tune, they unfortunately were held back a little bit by brother Skip on guitar.

The band mostly plays originals, but their cover of the Flying Burrito Brother's "Devil in Disguise" is noteworthy, and they dip into the repository of gospel songs now and then, which provides a spotlight for the beautiful sibling harmonies. The encore was a particularly nice example of this.

My main problem with the show was the sound, and blame probably lays at the feet of the band. They had several omnidirectional microphones on stage and then some unidirectional microphones, too. What they had was too many microphones! When the kids were soloing -- particularly the mandolin solos but also the banjo and fiddle solos -- the background noise easily drowned out the solos. This also was a problem with the vocals, where the music ate up a lot of the enunciation, so I could tell that Cia was singing well, but I couldn't tell what words she was singing. Since the Highline pushes the volume up toward rock 'n' roll levels, maybe the band doesn't normally encounter these problems, but the muddiness was really dissatisfying for me.

1 comment:

Ellen Stanley said...

i've never seen cherryholmes live so i was interested to read about their set...they're playing at the cedar this sunday, and i'm contemplating shelling out the $20. worth it?