For Whom Belle Tolls

Belle Monroe & Her Brewglass Boys Toll For Thee Thursday at Sweetwater

By Matt Kramer
Pacific Sun
June 1, 2007

Thursday night marks the next edition of the ongoing Bluegrass Gold series at Mill Valley’s Sweetwater Saloon, and it’s a CD release celebration. The cheekily named Belle Monroe & Her Brewglass Boys have at last—after a decade or so of performing around the Bay Area and beyond—produced their first full-length recording. Sharing its name with the six-piece band, the CD is a genuine homegrown product: it was mastered across the bay in Richmond, and was recorded in the heart of Marin at the Icehouse Recording, on Fourth near Shaver Street in San Rafael.

A small studio audience gives the 16-song set even more of a hand-made aura, and according to the liner notes, the recording session was akin to jamming at a party: making music, having fun with friends, and passing around a bottle or two. The disc definitely has a good-time vibe to it. Mirth and musicianship mingle to color quite a few of the bluegrass tunes, originals and covers that include compositions from the Reverend Gary Davis to Peter Rowan and Bill Monroe to Gillian Welch to Bob Dylan. The majority clock in around the three-minute mark, with plenty of good, clean picking packed into each and every song. True to the few times I’ve seen this band perform live, Belle and her boys—one of whom is a girl—share the lead vocal chores, and also harmonize mighty well together when called for. Belle (I’m uncertain if I should reveal her true identity. It’s inside the CD, but I didn’t pay for the privileged information) has some fun singing lead on “The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me.” Actually, the entire band’s having fun on this one, contributing to the vocals and taking the tempo from lope to gallop and back again. The Russian/Gypsy homage in this tune, complete with a shouted “Hey!” works perfectly.

Yet this band is far from a one-trick pony. There are serious songs, bluegrass-befitting doses of lonesome, and a waltz replete with trembling mandolin and weeping violin. And then there’s the eerie and gorgeous take on the Monroe/Rowan nugget “Walls of Time,” which has been playing in my head off and on for about three days now. Belle’s plaintive and strong vocals rise above the lushly arranged and perfectly paced rhythms, taking me back to Peter Rowan’s performance of this song at a KWMR benefit earlier this year. The loud and powerful acoustic guitar chords contribute emotion to this potent rendition, which is also enhanced by a short, stuttering run on the resophonic guitar. At 4:26, this haunting track is tied for longest song on the disc with a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Tear My Stillhouse Down,” a song I love in spite of the chills it sends down my homebrewer’s spine.

There’s plenty of fiery fiddling and banjo picking along the ride, too, from the first fretted chords of “Fire on the Mountain” to “Leaving Wins My Heart” and its odd take on romance and relationships and right on through the “Trainwreck of Emotion” that brings this overdue recording to a crashing close.

As good as Belle Monroe and Her Brewglass Boys is, though, come on out and see ‘em live at the Sweetwater. That way, you’ll also get to hear singer/songwriter Rick Jamison, formerly of Copper Canyon, who sings right nice and picks a helluva guitar!

 

 

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This page updated 6/1/07