The Steep Canyon Rangers Bring Their Cutting-Edge Americana and Newgrass to Bowery Ballroom

by delarue

A few years ago, the Steep Canyon Rangers were best known as Steve Martin’s bluegrass backing band. On one hand, that gig catapulted them beyond the bluegrass highway into what remains of a mainstream in this country. On the other, they’re a fantastic band in their own right. Their previous album Tell the Ones I Love was a rich survey of Americana, from oldtimey front-porch folk to the Grateful Dead, channeled through the prism of bluegrass, ending with a fantastically creepy hi-de-ho swing tune. Their new one, Radio – streaming at Spotify – picks up where that one left off, but with an even more aphoristic lyrical vividness that draws deeply on classic 50s C&W. The group – bassist Charles Humphrey, fiddler Nicky Sanders, mandolinist Mike Guggino, banjo player Graham Sharp, guitarist Woody Platt and drummer Michael Ashworth – are on yet another US tour, with a stop at Bowery Ballroom at 9 PM on October 12; general admission is $20.

The opening title track, a minor-key newgrass pop hit, is a bittersweet look back at life before Spotify: “Kasey Kasem told me I’d find her one day, and I believed…a skeleton key made just for you, and the open door we stumbled through and we crawled and we ran and we just flew.” After that, the swaying, bluesy midtempo Diamonds in the Dust looks back to Woody Guthrie and before: “These dreams are bust, chasin’ the silver in the starlight, the diamonds in the dust.”

Simple Is Me has an easygoing 70s Americana pop feel spiced by Sharp’s terse banjo lines, a sound echoed later on in Long Summer. By contrast, Blow Me Away has a blustering high-plains drive: anybody who’s ever raced to get home (or get down into the basement) after the twister warning comes over the radio or the fire station siren will relate to this. Again, Sharp takes centerstage before Sanders and Guggino follow with lickety-split solos. Blue Velvet Rain (what a great title, huh?) keeps the stormy imagery going, this time over a morose, morbid country waltz with biting solos from those two again: “Soaked to the bone and burning alone, a fire without any flame.” Then they pick up the pace with the brisk instrumental Looking Glass.

The gorgoeusly allusive Down That Road Again could be about crime, or addiction, or plain old heartbreak…or maybe all of those things. Break – a duet between Platt and his wife Shannon Whitworth – gets supersonic playing from Sharp and Guggino and a jagged, fabric-tearing solo from Sanders. The band brings it down again with a brutally picturesque George Jones homage: “The stronger stuff doesn’t help anymore, it’s barely enough to hold up the floor when the ceiling’s too low and it’s promising rain.”

When the Well Runs Dry grimly weighs the need to make a living against the potentially devastating consequences of fracking. The album winds up with Monumental Fool, an offhandedly apt look at how history forgets money-grubbers. Yet another brilliant mix of Americana songcraft and playing: no wonder these guys routinely take home IBMAs every year.