Patuxent CD-177 Nate Leath - Rockville Pike
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Nate Leath and Friends: Rockville Pike
Nate Leath is a scary-good fiddler, band-member of Old School Freight Train, tunesmith, producer—and now, ringleader of one hell of a rollicking musical party as captured on his new old-time inspired album “Rockville Pike.” For this project, (“one of most collaborative I’ve ever been part of,” he says), Nate’s thrown together veterans like Mark Schatz (on bass, banjo, and feet), Danny Knicely, and Tom Mindte, with rising stars in what I call the Formidable Companionable Youth of contemporary “neo-trad.” Youth: yes, there’s something curiously compelling about 13-year old Tatiana Hargreaves wailing out on “Boll Weevil”: “Saw a little spider climbing up and down the wall / He must have been goin’ to get his ashes hauled…”. Formidable: because awesome technical chops, deep listening in diverse styles, musical knowledge and inventiveness are givens, not exceptions, in this extended circle of brilliant players. Companionable: because as a community these young Turks are incredibly good-hearted, supportive, welcoming, spirited, playful, aware.
All this rings clear as a bell on “Rockville Pike”: a glimpse into a campground session par excellence, consummate musicians playing old-time tunes and songs old and new, having themselves (and us) a time. From the first plangent vocals on “Ride Ol’ Buck to Water” by Tatiana and Austin phenom Sarah Jarosz (the 16-year old songwriter and multi-instrumentalist newly signed to Sugar Hill), you’re immersed in the sound, groove and vibe of good friends and good tunes. Absent busy, thought-out arrangements, you hear the spontaneity of musical thought in the moment, like a school of iridescent fish darting in the water.
Nate is one of many illustrious fiddler-alumni of Berklee College of Music, where over the years Matt Glaser, head of the Strings Department, has created a haven for enthusiasts of fiddle music of all kinds. I first met Nate at a party where, over the riot of a bluegrass-jazz meltdown, he told me how much he liked old-time music, the music he knew from growing up in North Carolina. His band, Old School Freight Train, went on to make waves with their distinctive fusion of pop, bluegrass, jazz, and progressive acoustic music, featuring strong original songs and subtle, intricate arrangements. As a producer he’s working with promising new acoustic artists and songwriters. Yet old-time music is always there in the mix. I saw Nate at last year’s Clifftop summer old-time festival in West Virginia, where he and some cronies had the dubious distinction of playing so late and loud they actually called down the wrath of the old-time music faithful (who have all, of course, sinned precisely thus in years gone by). I’d hope this project will get him back in their good graces.
What delights me about the “neo-trad” musical scene, captured with great freshness on this album, is how old-time music has been fully embraced as part of the essential vocabulary. Purists may carp when the sound departs from strains captured on old 78’s and field recordings; I prefer to reflect, “It need not have been so.” How easy it would be for young players with dazzling technical skills like Nate, mandolinist Eric Robertson, or Tatiana (at age 13 already a prize-winning contest-style fiddler), to dismiss old-time music as simplistic; or to borrow the tunes only as vehicles for musical posturing and hot licks. But listen and you hear that they get it; they love it; they can play a tune in, digging deeper each time through the conversation of crunching bass lines and curling bow strokes—testimony to these players’ maturity, taste and savor for the soulful.
This kind of ensemble playing, one of the gifts of old-time music, now rubs shoulders easily with other styles and aesthetics. Listen as acclaimed Cape Breton fiddler Kimberley Fraser’s “Ms. McCloud’s” seamlessly glides into old-time “Squirrel Hunters”; or to young Mississippi cellist, Nat Smith as he punctuates the one true bit of “fiddle space jam” playing on “Greasy Coat” vs. the straightforward drive of Nate and Tatiana’s tight twin fiddles on “Richmond.” Old tunes played like they’re just being written; new compositions, like Nate’s title track and “Rosin on the Gourd,” and Tatiana’s “What Time is it my Pretty Little Miss?” that sound a hundred years young. The players trust the tunes and songs to tell their stories, and they do. Maya Lerman’s pure vocal on “Moonshiner” is old time at its best: the highest praise the singer can bestow on them pretty women is that “their breath smells sweetly, like good old moonshine.”
The other thing you’ll hear on this album is great reverence for the power of the sound; with some beautiful exploration of the baritone realm via low cross-tuned fiddles, 5-string fiddle, cello, the low rattle of resophonic guitar. Recorded live in one room with no isolation or headphones, the album’s acoustic clarity is testimony to great players with great tone (and I reckon some great mikes expertly placed). You hear dancers’ feet slapping on the floor, strings thwanging on the upright bass; you’re smack in the middle of the party. Okay, one or two lapses result: I’m already at the party, thanks very much, by the time I hear Footworks’ Eileen Carson’s third holler on “Tennessee Mountain Fox Chase”; but then her fourth, in-your face “yee-hoo-hoo!” reminds me that Eileen, the hardest-working clogger-ographer on the circuit, has earned the right to holler all she wants. Let the wise listener turn up the volume, dance ‘round the kitchen, and holler along.