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Monday, March 23, 2015

As Bluegrass As It Gets: Harbourtown @ The Kentuckians in Romulus

Your Name in Lights--Living the Dream
You might need to sit down for this, but I'm actually going to cover a 100% pure bluegrass band on this blog--and what a band they are!  I've know the guys in Harbourtown for a few years now--they are somewhat of a fixture at most of the local bluegrass festivals I attend.    Their camp always hosts one of the best all-hours jams; as if on a single-handed mission to keep the parking lot picking tradition alive.  All the best pickers wind up there at some time during the night.  I've been trying to catch one of their local shows for over a year, but somehow they always pick a busy weekend to make the trip to Southeast Michigan.  A week or so back, I was FINALLY able to catch them on stage at the Kentuckians of Michigan Hall in Romulus.  For those unfamiliar, this social/cultural club and hall is one of the top venues for live bluegrass in the region, hosting local and regional acts nearly every weekend.  While some they have hosted some of the great names and legends in the genre, it's also a great place to catch new and upcoming bands.

The Guys in Harbourtown
Harbourtown is about as traditional a bluegrass group as you'll find.  They feature a straight forward lineup of mandolin, banjo, guitar and bass—each played by an accomplished musician equally at home playing lead or taking their turn with the solo breaks.  All four members of the band sing—trading off the lead, tenor and baritone parts of a set list rich in  bluegrass standard and deep cuts from first and second generation bluegrass bands.  One thing is certain, they sing with all their heart and soul; belting out tunes at the top of their range and the top of their lungs.  The band favors "high lonesome" standards and sings them as well as any band around today  Theirs is an unmistakable sound that often draws enthusiastic hoots and hollers of appreciation from the audience.
Versatility is the Name of the Game
You’ll hear a lot of “brother” music from Harbourtown (you know, the Monroe Brothers,  the Stanley Brothers, the Osborne Brothers…).  Like many traditional bands, they deliver a mix of songs about the simple life and lost love and  mixed with the occasional dark song/murder ballad  done in a happy key/tempo.  They also through in plenty of barn-burner instrumentals with booming banjo rolls, skillful mandolin breaks and flatpicked guitar breaks.  The band has a great stage presence, easily filling the space between songs  This is not your grandfather's bluegrass band however, as Harbourtown is comfortable filling out their set with a nice mix of more contemporary material tastefully selected from artists carrying on the bluegrass tradition.  The set this night did not disappoint with a great selection of tunes, many of which I had not heard them play before.  Great mix of slow songs early in the set building to higher-energy numbers to close things out.  One particularly memorable moment came during a cover of Bluebonnet Lane, where guitarist John Coffey really hit his groove with a killer walking bass run on his old Martin guitar that boomed and resonated with near church organ richness--what a cool accent to a killer arrangement.

Coffey Doing His Thing
I was excited to learn that Coffey had replaced former front-man Chris Smith, (who has taken a hiatus to concentrate on some other projects).  It's always hard to replace someone as talented as Smith, but I can't imagine the band could have done better than Coffey.  I first heard John play with his band “Pushin’ the Limits”, a great local band that sometimes features his young grandson Gavin on lead vocals and mini-guitar (you can find it on YouTube and it’s worth looking for).  Coffey has an easy tenor voice perfect for those high lonesome songs; the sort of voice equally suited to lead and harmony singing; a voice with real character.   John is also one of my favorite rhythm guitar players (though he is an accomplished flatpicker as well and fully capable of melting the occasional unsuspecting face).  He has a subtle approach to rhythm relying on rock-solid tempo and a broad dynamic range to add color to his playing.  He resists the too common urge to tack on a million extra notes, instead inserting subtle runs and fills the way a great poet uses punctuation.

Cole on the Five String
The true heart of the band is banjo player Jeremie Cole.  A virtual juke box of classic bluegrass tunes, I swear he knows the kick-off and solo to every bluegrass tune written between 1940 and 1990.   His rock-steady rolls provide drive in spades during barn-burner instrumentals and his sometimes bluesy, sometimes funky solo work can bring a tear to your eye or a smile to your face--and sometimes both at once!  Jeremie sings loud.  He obviously honed his trade singing in parking lot jams, surrounded by dozens of people and a million distractions.  He also sings dead on pitch and rarely forgets or screws up a lyric.  His voice is full, rich and loaded with gritty soul.  It is hard to imagine the Harbourtown sound without both his signature vocals and infectious smile.

Fox (left) Providing Some Color During the Chorus
There just aren’t many mandolinists like Lynn Fox.  Like Cole, he sings with all his heart and his somewhat raspy, hard-edged tenor cuts through the full throttle Harbourtown vocals while at the same time adding a ton of intriguing texture and color to the mix.  However, he really stands out for his mandolin work.  He has an explosive, crisp chop with a full, woodsy tone.  He throws in the occasional quick fill or melodic ornament to keep things interesting. He definitely gives everything to his singing—I have seen him at the end of a 3-day festival reduced to whispers and pointing by hours of singing.  Fox has a great sense of melody and mirrors the vocals flawlessly during his breaks.  He also has an uncanny knack for the dramatic, allowing his licks to grow in complexity and excitement, building to an inevitable smattering of applause as he finishes.  Lynn is very workmanlike in his playing, with only a twinkle in his eye and quick smile betraying exactly how much fun he has doing it.

Hickman on the Bass
A friend once told me that Kurt Hickman was the best bass player he’d ever met.  I tend to agree.  At first glance, you might disagree.  Kurt plays a pretty straightforward “one-five” bass line with a few walks thrown in to change chords.  He eschews taking numerous bass breaks, rarely resorts to slap-happy bass trickery and I don’t think he even owns a bow or electric bass.  However, if you watch, some of his secrets are revealed.  First, he does play a traditional bass line, but it is rarely the same song-to-song, and often verse-to-verse.  He finds ways to play simple bass lines in interesting and complex ways.  His timing is perfect…just teetering on the front edge of the beat the way I like it.  He is a master of dynamic control, effortlessly blending into the groove—you often feel his bass more than hear it.  He employs some jazz and swing walks as well as double stops in his transitions and has amazing tone.  While fun-loving and quick with a joke, he is capable of connecting with an audience and filling the MC role in the band with a modicum of dignity and class.  He somehow keeps the train on the tracks and rolling.

What?  It's Over?  Already?
The Kentuckians show had all the hallmarks of a late night jam at the “Cole Camp”.  The band stood in the center belting out traditional bluegrass.  There was food and drink aplenty.  A loyal following of friends, family and followers showed up to show their support and, true to their parking lot roots, the band had several of them join them on stage.  I’m sorry, I missed their names—they were exceptional!  If someone sends me the info, I’ll edit it in here and give them the recognition they deserve.  Like every time I see them, it ended too soon (and I regretted not bringing my guitar).  Do yourself a favor, next time Harbourtown comes to town, go catch their show!  Better yet, get your hind-end to a bluegrass festival (I recommend the Marshall Bluegrass Festival put on by Jeremie Cole), grab your axe and join in the jam.  You’ll be glad you did!

1 comment:

  1. Great article! I know all of the Harbourtown band members and you nailed each personality!
    If you can make it, come down to Norwalk, Ohio for Kurt's 3rd annual "Norwalk Music Festival" at the Huron County Fairgrounds. Harbourtown is the host band. Lonesome River Band will be there this year! July 9-12, 2015. Thanks!


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