Album Review: A Ton of Bounce in Grand Ole’ Ditch’s Big Red Ball

This bluegrass band Grand Ole’ Ditch from Cumberland, MD is a serious contender for my band of the year 2014.  They have just released a full-length album and it’s a humdinger!  Here’s my review.

A Ton of Bounce in Grand Ole’ Ditch’s Big Red Ball

I only have two problems with Big Red Ball, the imminent release by the Cumberland, MD band Grand Ole’ Ditch.  It makes me drive 80mph and it’s an hour too short.  Song after song, the energy these fellas pour into the music just drives my heel.  And I don’t want the ride to end.  I want to ramble till the roads turn to dirt, the car turns to campfire and the water turns to wine.Ditch2

The Cumberland Gap is really the trail-head to Appalachia proper.  This young band reincarnates that atmosphere with sounds steeped in centuries of coal dust, thin topsoil and rarified air.  They are a traditional string band and these boys are serious pickers.  Guitar, dobro, mandolin, fiddle and upright bass: they dig deep coal, plow rocky hillsides and soar the steep peaks and valleys in beautiful, challenging territory.

Yet while the tools and traditions are old, the territory Grand Ole’ Ditch traverses leads you across some rare twists and turns.  They might start out around “Shady Grove” but they swing by Yonder Mountain.  It’s not just high-speed picking with the Ditch or getting from point A to B.  The arrangements, key changes and harmonies are thoughtful nods to the past with modern grins from the restless.  “Cap, Coats & Cables” is a great example.  The breakdowns come, then break down again and you’ve crossed two bridges and a chorus before you realize that you’re home again.  The lyric is that rugged winter landscape we all know but these fellas are grabbing their caps, coats and cables to go tame it.  Whether they’re towing cables, jumper cables or guitar cables isn’t the point.  They’re ready.  “Hindrance” is just as complicated yet as direct as a brick wall; “…I don’t know and I don’t care about useless, mindless things.  If I don’t get out of here I will surely truly go insane.”  This is modern bluegrass ala Yonder, Stringdusters and Trampled By Turtles.

The landscapes in Big Red Ball are populated with drunks, lost loves, dark characters and “Man’s Best Friend,” the song destined to be the favorite of many dog lovers.  The lyrics paint simple, accessible portraits with clever word choices and phrasings.  If the songs were paintings, they would be by Rockwell and Remington.  You will know the people, places and things portrayed.  You just might recognize new details or remember more than you care to.

Vivid, clever lyrics meet sincere, energetic playing and four-part harmonies in Grand Ole’ Ditch.  I’m not the only person who’s recognized it.  I first saw them opening for Cabinet at Dante’s Bar in Frostburg, MD.  The next I heard of them, they were invited to play Telluride, Charm City and other defining bluegrass festivals.  They will release Big Red Ball on a night they share the bill with The Steep Canyon Rangers and Bobby Hicks: October 25 at The Palace Theater in Frostburg, MD.  It’s the evening concert after the Mid-Atlantic Fiddle, Banjo and Mandolin Competition.  I figure even at 80mph I’ll be able to listen to my copy four times on the drive there.  You can download yours at itunes, Bandcamp or http://www.grandoleditch.com/.

Watching the Clothes Go Round

Watching the Clothes Go Round

So it’s Monday morning.  I’m doing laundry, uploading videos, blogging and remembering all the great moments I experienced this weekend.  As usual, there were some great events I had to miss, but I’m a “focus on the positive” kind of guy.  Also following a theme, my weekend started on Thursday!

Sara Watkins and Dawes at The Strand-Capitol Theater in York were exhilarating! Sara and her brother Shawn opened the show: she on fiddle and the occasional drum, he on guitar.  Their crystal-clear voices blend as only those of siblings can.  She joked about the awkwardness of singing love songs with her brother but shared being thrilled about touring behind her own music.  She was a strong current in Nickel Creek for years and recently spent seven months on tour with The Decemberists.  The theater was packed and a strong contingent of Sara Watkins fans made their presence felt.  It was beautiful to experience.

The GM crowed about selling out this Dawes show in four days and about how they sold out the last time they played there.  Hello?  You have a huge, beautiful room right next door.  Move Dawes to the big room!  Sell 500 more tickets and let the band and its fans really celebrate their next visit to York!

I have been chasing Dawes since their North Hills album and just kept missing them.  I know they are playing Long’s Park in Lancaster on July 22 but I wanted that intimate theater experience.  I got it!  They played a few from North Hills, many from the brilliant Nothing’s Wrong and even some new material from their upcoming project.  Songwriting and musicianship are back, jack!  Their music feels as genuine and accessible as sunlight.  They made the Strand-Capitol and its packed house glow in it!

I knew Friday night’s show would have to be a giant to overshadow Dawes.  Cabinet and The Kalob Griffin Band were a virtual eclipse!  Holy shit can these bands play!  Calling Cabinet a bluegrass band is like calling The Who a rock band; the label is too shallow for the depth of their work.  One minute they are relentlessly picking some bluegrass to pieces and in the next, they are soaring through some ethereal, sonic landscape like Weather Report, Return to Forever or Jean-Luc Ponty.  I think I have a clue about their name. They bring the medicine cabinet, the kitchen cabinet, the liquor cabinet, the gun cabinet and the whole pantry to the table when they come to play.  Who ever heard of a bluegrass/jazz/fusion/experimental rock band with gospel harmonies?  These fellas are a masterful invention and hot as lightning!  Bela Fleck and the Flecktones may have met their match!

I could gush about KGB all day.  The chants of their rabid fans are still ringing my ears.  With all the sadness in State College these days, these boys are bringing the happy back to Happy Valley.  For a lively review and stellar photo gallery, follow this link to TriState Indie and the posting by Autumn Walden.  I have TSI and Fryth at DipCo to thank for turning me on to this band and Autumn is now my official dance partner at KGB shows.  Their presence Friday let me go civilian, put down the camera and kick up my heels!  Kalob Griffin Band shows are a huge party and who wants to work through that?!

So 570 words and four loads of laundry later, I’ve still only told you about Thursday and Friday of my weekend: the indoor shows.  For today, I’ve been indoors enough.  It’s time to pull on a freshly-laundered Gigspots shirt and get back out there!  Tune in next post to see my review of Saturday’s and Sunday’s events, videos and all.