More Good Oldtime Songs from Tumbling Bones

by delarue

The proliferation of new oldtime string bands has grown almost to the point of overkill. Is this a bad thing? Not if they sound like Tumbling Bones. The quartet of banjoist Jake Hoffman, fiddler Sam McDougle, guitarist Peter Winne and bassist Steve Roy are based in Brooklyn: they take the kind of stuff that was coming out of Memphis circa 1930 and do it nonchalantly and soulfully, 2012 style. Much as most of the tracks here are covers, this band isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, or copy and paste something that’s already been done to death.

Their latest album Schemes is a potent reminder of how much cross-pollination there was between country and blues back in the day, despite the obstacles against it. Forget for a second that there was no internet: throughout the Bible Belt, there were an awful lot of places where, if you were black, it could be a lethal mistake to associate with whites. But musicians have always been ahead of the curve. That’s not to say that there weren’t racist white musicians, but that the cool ones were playing black music, and vice versa: proof that good music will bust through any divide-and-conquer scheme, every time.

The album kicks off with Prison Wall Blues, inspired by a 1930 Cannon’s Jug Stompers recording, done as a steady backbeat banjo tune with a hot jazz bounce, a hillbilly melody, high lonesome harmonies and gospel allusions everywhere. “I once was lost but now I’m found,” goes one line, but it’s obvious that getting over life in the slammer was as tough then as it is now. Where the Palm Trees Grow, by Winne, is a plaintive update on a Stanley Brothers-style sad waltz, with soaring harmony vocals from Kristin Andreassen. McDougle’s Five Points is next, a catchy, countryfied Irish reel. Chris Connors joins the choir on an a-cappella version of the old spiritual Trouble Around My Soul: grounded in rich, low harmonies, it blows away anything you might have heard on the O Brother Where You Bound soundtrack.

Their take on the traditional ballad Moonshiner draws on the Dylan version, but with more of a wink and a grin: the drunk in this tale isn’t about to give up just yet. McDougle’s aching, overtone-drenched violin solo is one of the album’s high points. The album winds up with an unexpectedly and impressively majestic version of Viola Lee Blues with slide guitar, harmonica and Roy’s growling bass way up in the mix. There’s also a brief fragment of a song that fades up and then out in about thirty seconds, which is a good thing because it sounds like it was recorded on somebody’s old phone: all that treble will have you reaching for the mute button. Fans of vintage Americana will eat this stuff up: the whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp site. The band is currently on European tour; their next New York gig is on Sept 25 at Dinosaur Barbecue, 700 W 125th St. at 12th Ave.