Album Review

Dry Branch Fire Squad - Live At Last!

Dry Branch Fire Squad - Live At Last!

Tirelessly traditional, somewhat lo-fi, but dazzling and immaculate, Dry Branch Fire Squad opens their 20th year with a recording from two 1995 performances at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts. It's a rousing, funny, in-your-parlor recording: The crowd murmurs, glasses chink, and the band members laugh and ad-lib freely. The Squad is led by founder Ron Thomason (mandolin) but is grounded in the unshakable rhythm section of Charlie and Mary Joe Leet, the banjo of Bill Evans (who only occasionally goes full breakdown), and Susan Thomas's banjo, guitar and joyful, tragic voice. In a live setting, the notes sometimes come so fast and gritty it could be punk, though of course it ain't. Catch, if you can, Thomason's quantum-leaping on mandolin during "John Henry". But the band's trademark is to let songs, rather than skill, hypnotize. The focus is tradition, though a subplot is Thomason's between-song rambles. However funny and charming, his monologues raise some uneasy questions. Thomason traffics in clever Southern stereotypes like "shallow end of the gene puddle," and he rarely takes his subjects seriously enough to illuminate them. He's a lot funnier than "Hee-Haw", but that's little tonic. His audience is Yankee and urban, and so the Duke of Paducah wordplay and rubery comes dangerously close to flattering the cultural divisions that have historically pushed bluegrass to the margins. Thomason has said: "All my life I've wanted a quartet that sounded like early church singing." These performances show he's got it. The band has flawless taste and unearths wonderful, forgotten gems such as "The Cowboy Song" by Roy Robinson, their finest interpretation. Susan Thomas is an unaffected wonder, maybe the best unknown voice in country music. When she leads off "Hard Times", she sings with the piney, forsaken voice of Barbara Allen herself. Ultimately, last year's Dry Branch retrospective Just For The Record is more artistically satisfying that this live disc, but Live At Last! is still worth exploring, for live bluegrass is a special world. In it, you can hear friends linking old time and folk, drawing out a single spirit of soulfulness.