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The banjo reviews database is here to help educate people before they purchase an instrument. Of course, this is not meant to be a substitute for playing the instrument yourself!

6936 reviews in the archive.

Craig Evans: Frailin' with Friends

Submitted by Joanchek on 3/19/2009

Where Purchased: AutismHangout.com

Overall Comments

Frailin’ with Friends
Rootbass Records
Reviewed 3/19/2009 by Joan Radell

We often refer to a “circle of friends.” And circle is the perfect metaphor. It only takes two people to start that circle, and as we journey through life we make our circle bigger one person at a time. When times are tough, we pull that circle close for the support we need. And in happy times, our circle expands exponentially as we share our joy. A circle of friends is an ever-changing, living thing that breathes love.

Craig “Frailin’” Evans, well known in old-time music circles for his lyrical banjo style, is one of those folks whose circle just keeps getting better and stronger every day. Craig has gathered a circle of his musical friends to compile a collection of songs that conveys just how he feels about life. His amazing banjo is the musical thread that ties each musician and each song together.

Frailin’ with Friends was produced for a special group of Craig’s friends--the online community at AutismHangout.com. Autism spectrum disorder is a catch-all term for a wide variety of brain-development disorders. Families touched by autism face special challenges every day, and the support and empathy they can give and receive at the Autism Hangout makes life a little easier. Craig opened his circle to include those with autism, their families, friends, and caregivers, and is using the proceeds of the sale of the album to benefit this online community.

Frailin’ is a busy guy. He plays regularly with his two bands, Singleton Street and The Eelpout Stringers. Both bands and their widely differing styles are well represented here. Singleton Street is a quartet featuring Sherri and Chuck Leyda and Jimmy Newkirk that favors upbeat old-time gospel tunes. Their tight harmony, exceptional instrumentals and grinning delivery is quintessentially happy music. Of the four Singleton Street tunes on the album, the standout is “Red Clay Halo.” It is simply impossible to listen to this bubbly arrangement of Gillian Welch’s tune without tapping at least one toe. With voices that blend effortlessly in classic 4-part harmony without a trace of muddiness, “Angel Band” is a rich treatment of the 1860’s era gospel standard. And the revival-style “Get in Line Brother” is a hand-clapping ripsnort of a ride.

Craig’s exuberant clawhammer banjo fronts the Eelpout Stringers. Loyd Mitchell, Karl Burke and Nick Rowse fill out this quartet. The band takes their name from the Eelpout Festival, held annually on frozen Leech Lake in Walker, Minnesota. After entertaining the cold crowd with their fish-kissing antics, the foursome has been known to sing for their supper--busking a few tunes in exchange for a welcome hot meal and cold glass. The Stringers are masters of old-time standards and appear four times on the album. Their straightforward arrangements highlight the influence of ancient Celtic musical themes on traditional Appalachian-roots music. But Craig’s musical circle encompasses more than classic old-time-genre foursomes.

The precise bass and rippling guitar of renaissance man David Tousley weaves through more than a few songs on Frailin’ with Friends. Whether counter-pointing a fresh, plaintive duet arrangement of the ancient tune “Greensleeves” on guitar, or providing a strong thump of foundation for the camp-song handclapper “I’ve Got Two Hands,” David is a versatile musician who understands the complexity of frailed banjo. His delicate, sparkling guitar enhances but never overpowers. (Beyond his performance talent, Tousley also mixed and mastered the album.) The album’s show stealer, however, is Debbie Sorenson-Boeh. She’s a master fiddler and evocative vocalist. With a controlled hand and light touch on the bow, Debbie has found the Holy Grail of violin: a timbre and tone that parallels that of the human voice. Debbie started playing the violin at the tender age of 11, and trained in classical performance. After a decade’s break to raise her family, Debbie again picked up her violin and took a bluegrass path. She discovered that traditional roots music allowed her to connect with an audience in the way she wanted to. “The thing I love most is cutting to the core of a song/feeling/story,” Debbie says. “I don't like a lot of fancy stuff - I want something honest and unique.” Honest and unique perfectly describes Debbie’s stellar vocals on “A Mother’s Dying Words to Her Daughter.” Although the song title seems bleak for an album about the joys of friendship, Debbie’s soaring, true alto raises this 1920’s tune from maudlin to masterpiece. Reminiscent of American folk-music icons Hazel Dickens, Maybelle Carter, and yes, Joan Baez, Debbie’s vocal performances exemplify old-time music while redefining it in a modern, relevant way.

Rounding out “Frailin’ with Friends” are two tracks featuring Craig and his “festival friends.” These impromptu, live recordings took place under a rain tarp in a field in central Minnesota (it was a June festival jam), and embody all that is great about old-time traditional music. Fiddler Debbie Sorensen-Boeh, award-winning autoharpist Karen Mueller, singer/songwriter/guitarist Geoff Shannon and bassist Terry Sullivan join Craig in rousing renditions of “Soldier’s Joy,” a tune that dates at least as far back as the Civil War, and the old-time standard “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss.” The exuberance of al fresco jamming, artfully pre-mastered by Geoff Shannon, shines through these two songs.

Frailin’ with Friends ends with a solo by our Frailin’ friend himself. Craig plays “Raising Arizona,” a composition that begins with the theme from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, better known as “Ode to Joy.” The song drifts into the Sons of the Pioneers “Way Out There”… an ethereal melody, set off by a wordless descant that brings to mind cowboys and vivid sunsets. Is Frailin’s high lonesome cry a yodel? A prayer? A whoop of joy? Perhaps it’s a call to music-lovers near and far, young and old, to join hands and form a circle: a circle of friends.

This happy album is available for purchase at www.AutismHangout.com. All proceeds from the album’s sale will benefit the Autism Hangout. For more information on the musicians featured on “Frailin’ with Friends,” check the following websites:

Craig Evans: www.myspace.com/frailin
Singleton Street: www.myspace.com/singletonstreet
The Eelpout Stringers: www.myspace.com/eelpout
Debbie Sorensen-Boeh: www.myspace.com/debsorensenboeh
David Tousley and Marty Marrone: www.tangledrootsbluegrass.com
Geoff Shannon: www.myspace.com/maryhendersonampgeoffshannon
Karen Mueller: www.karenmueller.com

Joan Radell is a music lover who follows the bluegrass and old-time music scene from a lovely perch high in the Poconos of Pennsylvania. Contact her at joanchek@aol.com.

Overall Rating: 10

Singleton Street: Wingin' It

Submitted by Joanchek on 12/18/2007

Where Purchased: Direct from Band

Overall Comments

Wingin’ It
Singleton Street
Independent Release 2007

Reviewed 12/18/2007 by Joan

Don’t get too comfortable when you put Wingin’ It, the newest CD by Singleton Street on the stereo. You won’t be sitting still for long. This long-awaited release, three years in the making, simply moves, in every sense of the word. The album presents 13 tracks of old-time Gospel favorites presented in the band’s inimitable foot-tapping style.

Singleton Street is a four-piece acoustic band from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Sherri Leyda leads most of the vocals with a soaring voice that holds up well to the exuberant instruments behind her. Sherri’s husband Chuck Leyda’s guitar lead or crisp mandolin dance through every track with a precision of tone and attack that can only be described as joyful. Jimmy Newkirk’s bass is a firm foundation, but he sneaks in a few great licks now and again to remind us of his skill. And banjoist Craig Evans’s clawhammer provides the color and sparkle that makes this offering soar. The four instruments sound bigger than they are, and the four-part harmonies are choral and close without being overly smooth. These are musicians who are individually talented, but who come together as a greater sum.

On first listen, I felt immediately drawn into a warm room filled with music. The record creates a space that is intimate and folksy. These songs are handmade and heartfelt. This may be old-time style, but there is a modern freshness that is engaging. It is difficult to capture the exuberance that a band demonstrates during a live performance on a recording, but Wingin’ It gives us just that.

Singleton Street feels their mission is sharing their strong Christian faith with their audiences. “There's something very powerful and moving about sharing faith with loved ones through Gospel music. It's ongoing. The love is still there... you can feel it when you sing. We love sharing this feeling with all our audiences. The best part is you can see that ongoing love resonate with them! Gospel music does that to you.” said Craig Evans in a recent interview. And while that message comes through loud and clear, this album is more tent-revival than Sunday-sermon. It’s readily apparent that these four talented folk are having a whole lot of fun.

Vocal harmony is a strong suit here. Normally, it is difficult for a female vocalist to blend into three strong male voices below her. Sherri shows a great skill in this regard. As a lead, she floats above the band nearly effortlessly. As the top of a four part vocal, she’s warm butter on the pancakes—rich and smooth. Singleton Street also manages to avoid the cliché of the comic basso profundo. Jimmy Newkirk’s bass is a deep velvet background that lets the higher registers sparkle. All three men have strong voices and impeccable timing. “Get in Line Brother” is the best showcase of the harmonic and vocal ensemble capabilities of the band.

Wingin’ It offers a mix of upbeat hand-clappers, gospel standards, and a tear-jerker or two. “Red Clay Halo,” by David Rawling and Gillian Welch is destined to be a new gospel classic and is perfectly presented here. Craig Evans’s vocal is homey with an energetic sensibility that keeps the song from becoming corny. “Gone Home,” a perennial sentimental favorite, is sweet but not cloying. The arrangement balances impeccable three- and four-part harmonies and complex guitar counterpoints. The acapella track, Hank William’s “House of Gold,” is plucked from an old Kentucky choir-loft, but the pace and length of the arrangement keeps the song from plodding. “Old Hymn Medley” follows, showcasing the instrumental talents of each player. The vocal tag-ending lacks only a “amen!” finish. “Angel Band,” another gospel standard by Ralph Stanley, is presented gently and tenderly with a hint of swing. The last track on the record is a pleasant surprise. “The Harvest” is a nostalgic ba

Overall Rating: 9

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