Bluegrass...or 'booze grass'?
Poor Man's Whiskey, Four Year Bender Stumble Into Town
By Matt Kramer
When recently carpooling through the presently parched local hills, a friend said, "So many people talk about the golden hills of California. That doesn't look golden to me. That's just brown." The green grass may be mostly gone, but there's still plenty of hot local bluegrass around this county. This Wednesday, the Sweetwater hosts the long-running Bluegrass Gold series. For this edition, it's a double bill that sounds like drinking trouble, as Four Year Bender opens, followed by a chaser of Poor Man's Whiskey.
The first time I saw Poor Man's Whiskey they were performing at a friend's wedding, in the garage shielded from the pouring April rain. Since that San Rafael performance, this Sonoma County Septet has gone on to play much bigger shows. Last year, dressed in old-time striped prisoners' garb, they were joined onstage by Warren Hellman, the founder and generous benefactor at San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Fest. This year they played the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Bluegrass crowds don't get much bigger. Since then, they've rung in the New Year with Phil Lesh & Friends.
Not too shabby for a band that began as a side project, and has branched out to seven strong from a five man string band. With the addition of Noah Logan on drums, I can't rightly write that their music is all traditional bluegrass, though there's plenty of that good ol' mountain music in the roots of their sound. And being something of a drummer myself, I seldom complain about the presence of percussion.
The band derived its name from a story regarding the late blues guitarist and songwriter Mississippi John Hurt, who, when touring with some well-known rockers, was offered some marijuana. His response was supposedly something like "that ain't nothin' but poor man's whiskey." So maybe this line-up isn't as dangerously alcohol-based as I had presumed. And it calls into question the quality of the herb being passed around back then.
Just a couple of months back, this newgrass band played a CD release show up in its home county at the Mystic Theatre. This week they'll be celebrating Roadside Attraction in our fair county. The disc was recorded and mixed last year in the fall, in Sebastopol, not long before the band was clowning around with Warren Hellman. Some of the song titles and lyrics reflect the band's sense of humor, which comes through loud and clear during live performances. It's evident that they love to play music and have a good time. So catch 'em live first, and then see if you don't end up leaving with a disc in your hands.
Now that I've prattled on about the whiskey (folks can attest this happens whenever I hit that strong stuff), I need to get into the Four Year Bender. Like PMW, Four Year Bender began as a side project; FYB started out as songwriter Ryan Smith's diversion from his touring band Boomshanka and thankfully caught on with Bay Area crowds. After four years of existence, FYB is playing events and venues such as Hardly Strictly and The Fillmore. In addition, KPFA and KFOG have given airplay to FYB's CD Lucky, which was recorded in Sausalito at the legendary Record Plant. With the pedal steel guitar, acoustic guitar, and slice of life lyrics, some call their music country, while some say it's Americana. To me that's like deciding whether the sun-fried hills are golden or brown.
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This page updated 12/2/05