New York Music Daily

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Tag: bluegrass music

The Infamous Stringdusters Catch Lightning in a Bottle

 

It’s no secret that jambands are at their best onstage. Sure, the Infamous Stringdusters will probably sell busloads of copies of their forthcoming album Let It Go (due out April 1) at shows – a cynic would say that if you’re drunk or stoned enough, you’ll buy anything. But believe it or not, the album actually manages to capture the kind of livewire intensity that the band generates night after night in concert. They’re at Bowery Ballroom on March 27 at 10ish; general admission tix are $23.

The secret to this band’s onstage alchemy lies in the dynamics between Andy Hall’s dobro and Chris Pandolfi’s banjo. Sometimes it’s a tug-of-war, sometimes their snaky lines intertwine and harmonize alongside Andy Falco’s guitars, Jeremy Garrett’s fiddle and Travis Book’s bass. What makes the Stringdusters different from so many of their newgrass brethren is that a lot of their songs, especially on this album, are basically blue-sky rock anthems with acoustic instrumentation. This band doesn’t just recycle a ton of oldtime folk and bluegrass licks: they have their own distinctive style. Case in point: the album’s opening track, I’ll Get Away, where Garrett’s dancing lines give the song a bit of a Celtic tinge. Or the second track, Where the Rivers Run Cold, with Pandolfi’s flurrying, rapidfire, genuinely hard-rocking banjo.

The wary, biting Winds of Change segues out of that, with a stark twin fiddle solo and then some deliciously intense tradeoffs between the dobro and banjo. Rainbows starts out as a gentle folk-pop tune and then picks up with a big anthemic chorus, while Summercamp takes doo-wop rock to the country. The tersely dancing instrumental Middlefork mashes up a country waltz with Mexican folk and the Grateful Dead in acoustic mode

By My Side reverts to an anthemic acoustic highway rock vibe, followed by Colorado, an even mightier, more soaring newgrass anthem. There’s a hint of the Dead classic Franklin’s Tower in the catchy, shuffling Peace of Mind, the fiddle leaping joyously over its steady backdrop. Light and Love offers hints of oldtime country blues, while the album’s closing track, Let It Go is a civil war tune at heart. All of this has an intricate weave of instruments and the kind of incisive, meaningful jamming that usually gets the squeeze when you take a jamband out of their element and stick them in the sterile confines of a studio. The album’s not up at Spotify yet but it ought to be next month because the rest of the band’s studio stuff is there.

Poor Old Shine Put an Original, High-Energy Spin on Classic Americana

It’s a good bet that the popularity of Americana rock band Poor Old Shine has a little something to do with Deer Tick. But while both bands use traditional Americana as a stepping-off point for more rock and pop-oriented sounds, Poor Old Shine are both more punk and more eclectic, with a distinct Irish flavor in places. If you like the idea of O’Death but you find the reality oppressively bleak, Poor Old Shine have anthems for you. Their debut album is streaming at Signature Sounds‘ site; they’re at the Mercury on March 10 at around 11. If you’re going, be sure not to miss noir femme fatale Karla Moheno, who plays her murderously torchy, wickedly lyrical songs beforehand at 10 PM. Advance tix are $10 and since the venue is bothering to sell tickets at all, that’s a sign that the club is expecting a big turnout: you can get them there between 5 and 7 PM Monday-Friday sometime before showdate.

Over a swaying Celtic-tinged bounce, the album’s opening track, Weeds or Wildflowers celebrates living in the moment, banjoist Chris Freeman playing a tune that’s practically baroque under Antonio Alcorn’s plinky mandolin. Behind My Eyes keeps the anthemic Irish feel going, but more mutedly, until the mighty last chorus kicks in. Country Pocket spices up a bouncy, upbeat bluegrss tune with Max Shakun’s piano and more than a hint of a Motown beat – and somehow makes all of it work.

The Ghost Next Door layers elegantly fingerpicked, catchy acoustic guitar and a pensive lyric over lush accordion chords. Punching the Air anchors its hard-hitting, slurry punkgrass pulse with Harrison Goodale’s fuzz bass. A highway rock tune done as bluegrass, Right Now revisits the carpe diem theme: it’s both more gothic and more optimistic, the guys in the band deciding to jump at the opportunity to live on the road. Then they get quiet with Empty Rocking Chair, which is equal parts oldschool soul, John Lennon and Americana pop.

The Hurry All Around builds from a tuneful, oldtime-tinged accordion-and-mandolin pulse and rises to a long, unexpectedly lush, percussive outro: “That automobile made from Pittsburgh steel has taken all the hellos and the goodbyes out of you,” Freeman sings sardonically. The band follows that with the album’s most low-key number, just vocal harmonies and spacious piano with a little guitar ambience. They wind it up with the rousing, ragtime-tinged Tear Down the Stage; if the Band hadn’t approached vintage Americana as tourists, they would have sounded something like this.

The Steel Wheels Bring Their Catchy Acoustic Americana to Joe’s Pub

 

Isn’t it funny how whenever pop music goes completely to hell, classic Americana always makes a comeback? It happened in the 50s before rock took over the airwaves, when regional hitmakers from previously obscure places like Nashville and Nova Scotia broke through to a mass audience. It’s happening now, if on a smaller scale, since the radio airwaves – aside from college and nonprofit radio – have gone completely dead. “The beginning starts at the end,” Steel Wheels frontman Trent Wagler sings at the end of the second verse of his band’s brooding banjo ballad Walk Away, and he’s right. The Steel Wheels perfectly capture the newschool oldtime esthetic, which no doubt has a lot to do with their popularity. They’re at Joe’s Pub on March 9 at 7 PM for $15.

Their latest album, streaming at the band’s site, is titled No More Rain. It’s sort of a slower take on what grasscore jambands like the Infamous Stringdusters are doing, or, for that matter, what the Grateful Dead were doing in an acoustic vein thirty years ago, albeit more song- than jam-oriented. It’s a mix of mostly midtempo anthems and slower ballads that sometimes work an oldtime vernacular, and are sometimes just your basic jangly rock with acoustic instrumentation and rustic arrangements. Eric Brubaker’s fiddle is the usual lead instrument, although Wagler’s elegant guitar flatpicking, Jay Lapp’s banjo and mandolin and Brian Dickel’s bass all figure equally into their tasteful sound. The songs are expansive, with plenty of room for solos that tend to be on the pensive side. And the songwriting is very catchy, drawing on oldtime Appalachian music as well as country gospel, country blues and bluegrass. If the Steel Wheels were based in New York, they’d be a Jalopy band.

With its fire-and-brimstone country gospel vibe, the album’s aphoristic opening track, Walk Away, is its strongest – and it’s the only one that’s in a minor key. The slow waltz Until Summer sounds like the BoDeans but with a fiddle in place of the electric guitars and an upright bass replacing the rock rhythm section, a formula the band works frequently through the rest of the album. The casual syncopation of Kiss Me draws on oldschool soul music, while Go Up and The Race blend equal parts country gospel and Appalachian mountain music into warmly inviting singalongs, the latter with some spot-on three-part vocal harmonies.

Story has a neat handoff from mandolin to fiddle midway through, while So Long, another waltz, sets an unexpectedly gloomy lyric – the guy’s talking about seeing his ex-girlfriend in heaven – to a sunny melody. Whistle is newgrass with a dash of oldtime Britfolk; I Will, the album’s final track, a newgrass take on a hook-driven highway rock anthem. Corinne could be a Sam Llanas ballad, Oh Child the Grateful Dead – with a Burning Spear-style litany of directions that could either make you grin or roll your eyes. And the expansive neo-hobo tale Water’s Edge sounds like a parable of a modern-day drifer finally finding his niche in New Orleans, or Berkeley, or Bloomington maybe. You know the deal. If this is where catchy, easygoing hitmakers are making their home now, it’s a good place.

Della Mae Write Their Own Bluegrass and Oldtime Folk Standards

With their purist chops, lively interplay, lush four-part vocal harmonies and original songwriting that blends the best of decades of oldtime bluegrass and Americana, Della Mae represent everything that’s good about newgrass. Many of the songs on their latest album This World Oft Can Be bring to mind the similarly purist all-female Americana trio, Red Molly. The whole thing is streaming at youtube.

It opens with the upbeat, bouncy Letter from Down the Road, frontwoman Celia Woodsmith’s soaring vocals and Kimber Ludiker’s incisive, tersely direct fiddle front and center - as she does on most of the tracks here, Ludiker stays mostly in the resonant low to midrange of her instrument. The second track, Maybelline (rhymes with “behind,” more or less) picks up the pace with a bit of a Britfolk tinge, Jenni Lyn Gardner’s spiky mandolin and another impactful fiddle solo. Empire takes a turn in a considerably darker direction, a grimly detailed, John Prine-ish portrait of a decaying rust belt town.

Hounds of Heaven sets an apprehensive Nashville gothic mood that never rises: although the old sailor in the tale insists that it’s not his time to go, by the time the third verse kicks in, he’s thinking about drowning. The aphoristic Ain’t No Ash has the feel of an Appalachian classic, with some richly mingling tradeoffs between Ludiker and guitarist Courtney Hartman’s nimble flatpicking as it winds out:

Love is a precious thing, I’m told
Burns just like West Virginia coal
But when the fire dies down, it’s cold
There ain’t no ash will burn

The most chilling number here is Heaven’s Gate, a bitterly ghostly tale that begins with the fiddle mimicking the ominous low resonance of a steel guitar, then eventually goes doublespeed. Is this about a suicide, a murder, or both? Either way, it’s a great story.

Turtle Dove kicks off as a reel and then hits a brisk bluegrass rhythm, with nimbly flatpicked guitar and handoffs to the other instruments down the line – with its sad, symbolic bird imagery, it’s a dead ringer for a classic folk song from the 1820s. A swaying oldschool-style bluegrass tune, Pine Tree explores a vividly rustic southern milieu, lit up by yet another purposeful, emphatic fiddle solo. The band follows that with a slowly waltzing, rather atmospheric ballad, Like Bones.

This World has a brooding, hypnotic Britfolk quality that finally lifts a little as the chorus turns around, a metaphorically-loaded narrative of the perils of growing old…but there’s light at the end of this tunnel. The slow, lingering final track, Some Roads Lead On sounds a lot like the old folk standard Wild Mountain Thyme, but without the syncopation. With just two guitars and some absolutely gorgeous lead and harmony vocals, it evokes Hungrytown at their most bucolic, a good way to end this eclectically original and disarmingly charming album. The band will be on spring tour starting on February 22 at NEU Hall in Chicago.

 

A Tasty Bluegrass/Janglerock/Irish Blend from Chamomile & Whiskey

Central Virginia band Chamomile & Whiskey play a unique mix of newgrass, high-voltage Irish folk music and jangly rock.  Their album Wandering Boots is streaming at their Reverbnation page; they’re at Rock Shop on Jan 24 at 11 PM for a $10 cover,

The album’s opening track, Blue Ridge Girl is a briskly pulsing electric bluegrass tune with incisive mandolin and a surprisingly austere solo from fiddlet Marie Borgman. Dirty Sea veers back and forth between a darkly lively Irish reel with fiddle and whistle, and a backbeat country anthem. It’s cool to hear those sounds together, considering how much of a source one is for the other.

Impressions. another clanging electric bluegrass shuffle, has a similarly gorgeous, lush blend of electric guitars, banjo and fiddle. Long Day works a two-chord Just My Imagination vamp that rises on the chorus with more sweeeping strings, frontman Ryan Lavin channeling mid-60s Dylan with a brooding unease. Buckfast Tuesday is sort of an acoustic You Can’t Always Get What You Want – except that in this crazy tale, the band of burglars does.

The alhum’s title track makes fiery, anthemic punkgrass out of a doomed, minor-key country blues theme. They keep the edgy intensity going with the bitter anthem Sara Beth, which might be about a murder, or just a metaphorical one. Inverness, a purposeful, propulsive train song, sets Lavin’s surreal narrative over eerie, muted, staccato fiddle and more delicious layers of guitar: “Saw your face on a train, over on a seat by the windowpane, you were bettng races on the beads of rain.” he intones, and it just gets more surreal from there. The album winds up with the ominous, minor-key, swaying noir blues Second Lullaby, a booze-drenched singalong. This band has so much going for it: smart original tunesmithing, interesting cross-genre pollination and richly textured sonics that should come across well through Rock Shop’s excellent PA.

Andy Statman’s Superstring Theory – A Wild Americana Summit

Meet the latest newgrass supergroup. This is what happens when you put Andy Statman, Michael Cleveland and Tim O’Brien together in the same room – good grief! Much of this album, Superstring Theory, with Statman as bandleader, is flat-out gorgeous, cutting-edge Americana. Jim Whitney, Statman’s longtime four-string guy holds down the low end with Larry Eagle on drums on a mix of Statman originals plus vocal takes of the droll folk tune Green Green Rocky Road and Richie Valens’ proto-Ramones hit Come On Let’s Go. Statman’s signature sense of humor pervades pretty much everything here when he and the rest of the band aren’t burning down the barn. The instrumentation may be mostly acoustic, but this is not a quiet album.

There are more unexpected treats here than you can shake a stick at. On the opening track, Little Addy, it’s not Statman’s mandolin but Cleveland’s fiddle that ends up taking the dancing tune into funky, practically avant-garde territory.  Statman saves his first series of crazed spirals for Mando at the Flambo after O’Brien’s guitar introduces it as a boogie blues. Careful dynamic shifts move up and down throughout the pretty, midtempo blue-sky ballad For Barbara, followed by The French Press, where O’Brien offers hints of flamenco as Statman blows the roof off with his Djangoesque sprints.

Herman Howe’s Bayou, an exuberant fiddle-driven cajun country waltz, is flat-out gorgeous; O’Brien’s low-register hammer-ons fueling one of the album’s most exquisite interludes. Then they launch into Surfin Slivovitz: Eagle gets the surf beat down cold, Whitney plays genre-perfect broken chords, O’Brien’s electric guitar adds some understatedly moody twang, and Cleveland turns out to be as good a surf player as he is at everything else. Statman, as usual, is the wild card. This song should be a standard.

Waltz for Ari is unexpectedly sad and resigned, all the more so through Statman’s almost tenative picking as it fades down morosely. Then they pick up the pace again with Pale Ale Hop, alternating between a jaunty waltz and a funky Tex-Mex theme. House of the Screaming Babies brings back a wry, bluesy interplay; Statman wails on clarinet on the album’s longest and final track, Brooklyn London Rome. which begins as an oompah waltz, then smooths out with more of a country (or Brooklyn, if you will) flavor, then without warning segues into a smoldering klezmer dance that gives the bandleader a chance to flex his chops. Statman’s next NYC gig is on December 3 at 53 Charles St. just west of Hudson in the west village.

Cutting-Edge Bluegrass Banjo From Bennett Sullivan

Banjo player Bennett Sullivan‘s latest album, Lady Nora, is a cutting-edge, fun, upbeat mix of newgrass instrumentals. Sullivan has a unique and interesting style that uses both guitar and mandolin voicings in addition to more traditional picking, and his supporting cast of Ross Martin on guitar, Rob Hecht on fiddle, and Pat Falco on bass play with a similar inspiration and high-spirited intensity.

The album opens with a full-band song, the aptly titled Honey Butter and its flatpicked guitar lead over a rippling banjo tune. What strikes you fastest is how fast, yet how subtle Sullivan is, taking over the lead almost imperceptibly before handing off to more easygoing fiddle and guitar solos. The song goes in the direction of a reel for awhile before another spiky banjo solo. Sullivan follows it with the lively banjo/fiddle dance Howard’s Knob, which he picks guitarstyle. After that, the delicate, pensive, cautious title track comes as a real surprise: this Nora is a complicated girl, even if she’s very straightforward about it

On the Davidson, a briskly pulsing bluegrass tune, sets edgy banjo and fiddle solos – the latter with a deliciously bracing climb up the scale – over catchy but unexpected changes. After that, the band blasts through the lickety-split Si Si No No and winds up the album with The Hound, a bouncy but restlessly minor-key tune with a darkly bluesy undercurrent. They hit a pensive interlude with the fiddle as the rhythm drops out, then Sullivan rustles through a verse, then they break it down to a practically funky syncopation. Oldschool instruments + new ideas = good times all the way through. If you play, grab this album and get your hands on a lot of ideas worth stealing. Sullivan is at the small room at the Rockwood with this band this coming January 4 at 9 PM.

Kimberly M’Carver’s Hard Waltz: Purist Country Songwriting, Brilliant Voice

Houston songwriter Kimberly M’Carver has a voice that will very gently knock you out. It’s sort of a cross between Emmylou Harris and vintage Dolly Parton, with all the nuance of the former and the sweetness of the latter. M’Carver can sing clear and pure as a country spring, or turn up the vibrato at the end of a phrase for an especially heartbroken edge.  True to its title, most of her latest album Hard Waltz, is oldschool, purist country music, with several numbers in 3/4 time. Being a strong songwriter, M’Carver had no problem pulling together an amazing band to back her this time around, including but not limited to co-producer/guitarist Scott Neubert, singer/guitarist Claire Lynch, Little Big Town bassist John Thomasson, GreenCards fiddler Eamon McLoughlin and Elvis Costello accordionist Jeff Taylor. Fans of hard country will love this.

The title track opens the album with a lush bed of acoustic guitars and an accordion solo that hands off to a pennywhistle – it’s very Emmylou. with a little Celtic edge. M’Carver picks up the pace with the catchy newgrass tune Bliss Creek and then brings it down again with the sweet, sad waltz You Say That You’re Leaving. “Promises bend, souls they grow thirsty and love stories end,” she laments before the gorgeous blend of fiddle and pedal steel kicks in on the chorus.

Teardrops and Wine sounds like it’s pretty self-explanatory, but it’s not that simple, and the way M’Carver slides up to a note on the second chorus will give you chills. Rodeo Clown was inspired by M’Carver’s second cousin, who is the genuine item – but the song casts the singer in the role of someone who’s “always there to pick you up when you’re knocked down.” It’s a neat twist. Devil or Fool, with its slow-burning, blues-drenched slide guitar, makes a stark contrast, taking its inspiration from M’Carver’s many trips to Sugar Land prison to visit her brother, who was in for drugs and a probation violation.

It Never Gets Easy, a straight-up, backbeat country song with some memorable lead guitar, steel and fiddle work, ponders a frustrating relationship where “the heat of your touch turned everything else cold.” Redemption, with its resigned blend of country gospel and Tex-Mex, takes a haunting look at dead-end despair and alienation and draws inspiration from the suicide of M’Carver’s first husband. It contrasts with the next track, There’s Always Sorry, a make-up song set to electric highway rock with a sizzling, spiraling guitar lead. The album winds up with the gentle, jazz-tinged countrypolitan waltz Will You Show Me the Stars – dedicated to M’Carver’s astrophysicist husband  of the last 25 years – and the vivid, picturesque post-breakup ballad Another Goodbye Waltz, something that Lucinda Williams would be proud to have written. M’Carver has several other purist albums to her credit and has toured with Jim Lauderdale; if she ever makes it up to NYC, you’ll hear about it here.

The Steep Canyon Rangers: Just About the Best Thing Happening in Americana Right Now

The Steep Canyon Rangers – bassist Charles Humphrey, fiddler Nicky Sanders, mandolinist Mike Guggino, banjo player Graham Sharp, guitarist Woody Platt and drummer Michael Ashworth – might be best known as Steve Martin’s bluegrass backing band. But they also write great songs. They’re on tour for their latest album, Tell the Ones I Love, at City Winery on Nov 4 at 8 PM; $20 standing room tix are your best deal. Newgrass nd original acoustic Americana doesn’t get any better than this.

The title track opens the album and sets the stage for most of the rest of it; the way they work an oldtime vernacular, respectful of tradition but not constrained by it, is the key to what this band does. This one is a brisk banjo-driven tune with a doomed, death-obsessed lyric, sort of an update on the classic folk song The Old 97. Stand & Deliver builds a surreal, apocalyptic scenario over a soaring, anthemic tune lit up by bluesy mandolin and a shivery fiddle solo. Bluer Words Were Never Spoken has a literate acoustic alt-country feel in something of a Joe Maynard vein, a sad story-within-a-story. They follow that with the amusingly cynical Come Dance.

Camellia recalls the Grateful Dead circa American Beauty; then the band pulls out their lone instrumental here, the Celtic-tinged Graveyard Fields. Boomtown has the feel of a James McMurtry western ballad, a pensive go-where-the-work-is tale. The band wryly explores a different and more dangerous kind of work in the weed-smuggling anthem Mendocino County Line, then go into darkly guitar-fueled oldtimey swing with Hunger. Lay Myself Down has some killer vocal harmonies and a neat succession of handoffs, from fiddle to banjo to mando; it wouldn’t be out of place in the Dixie Bee-Liners catalog. Take the Wheel goes back toward a rustic oldtime folk feel; the album ends with its best song, the twistedly carnivalesque hi-de-ho noir Las Vegas. “I’m king of this plastic castle but I feel like dying,” says the guy watching the “tight shirts, t-shirts and quick casanovas, honeymooners, middleschoolers, sightseeing high rollers” slowly making their way down the strip. “If you ain’t hustling, you can bet you’re getting hustled.” It’s a good indication of how diverse this band can be when they feel like it. And as anybody who’s ever seen Martin with these guys will tell you, they’re just as good live as they are on this album.

A Fun, Eclectic Early-Evening Americana Triplebill

New York venues should have more early shows. That’s not to say that staying out til the wee hours isn’t fun…but the train home afterward, or lack thereof? Ouch. For those of us in New York who live in neighborhoods poorly served by mass transit (which is just about everybody, right?) the American Folk Art Museum just south of the triangle where Amsterdam Avenue crosses Broadway on the Upper West Side offers free, 5:30 PM shows on Friday nights. And the performers can be fantastic. Turkish folk band Dolunay played an amazing couple of sets there last week; this week’s lineup was an acoustic Americana bill of songwriter Karen Hudson, fiddler Melody Allegra Berger and comedic honkytonk band Trailer Radio doing a stripped-down acoustic duo show, and all three acts were excellent.

Hudson almost always plays with a band behind her and for that reason might not be the first person you would think would be a good solo acoustic performer. But she was tremendous. She’s an elegant tunesmith and evocative lyricist who often uses an aphoristic, vintage C&W vernacular without sounding hokey or derivative, and she’s grown into an excellent, subtly nuanced singer. Some of her songs were funny, like Nicotine, her irresistibly amusing ode to the death-defying lure of tobacco. Others, like I Thought I Died, with its litany of near-misses, had the matter-of-fact resoluteness that runs through much of her songwriting. Others were haunting, in a memorably Mary Lee Kortes vein. The best of these was Mama Was a Trainwreck (Daddy Was a Train) – the best track on Hudson’s new Eric Ambel-produced album Sonic Bloom. It rocks pretty hard on record; stripped to its acoustic roots, it had a harrowing oldtime Britfolk feel, a bitterly surreal account of growing up with a father who, as Hudson put it, “was never able to change his ways.” She revisited that theme on a quieter, more reflective number before picking up the pace and ending with Late Bloomer and its gently insistent, optimistic nature imagery.

Fiddler Melody Allegra Berger picked up the energy further, plucking and soaring and singing here way through a mix of bluegrass and Americana classics alongside banjo player Bennett Sullivan. She’s true to her name, tuneful and fast. He’s got an intriguing album of his own out, and the two played the title track, Lady Nora. You might not think that an atmospheric ballad could be played on the banjo, but with his intriguing use of harmonics, that’s where Sullivan went with it. Berger led the duo through mix of instrumentals along with several vocal numbers, showing off a brittle vibrato reminiscent of but not deferential to Hazel Dickens. They opened with a romp through Soldier’s Joy, then a little later did a couple of songs about being hanged, as Berger gleefully explained, first the instrumental Hangman’s Reel and then Hang Me, which turned out to be one of the seemingly unlimited number of versions of the old folk song I’ve Been All Around This World. They wound up the set with a couple more hard-charging bluegrass tunes, setting the stage for Trailer Radio frontwoman Shannon Brown and her brilliant guitarist bandmate David Weiss, whose lightning flatpicking, big western swing chords and edgy blues kept the energy at full throttle.

As Brown told the crowd, she got run out of her hometown of Man, West Virginia “for being too impatient.” She really has a handle on cornball C&W humor, and her songs can be hilarious. The two mixed wryly amusing numbers like Football Widow (about a woman who uses her tv-addict husband and his dumb friends as an excuse to have more fun than them on a Sunday afternoon), He’s a Six (about a guy who’s just thisclose to being a decent choice of boyfriend), Two Tavern Town (inspired by the dead-end beer joints where Brown grew up) and the wry Too Old and Way Too Ugly, with a handful of slowly unwinding, unexpectedly somber blues tunes.

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