october 2009

Monroe Crossing
Monroe Crossing

Bluegrass being music means it knows no boundaries, so hearing some of the finest of its kind coming from the frozen north of Minnesota is unsurprising. Those being introduced to Monroe Crossing via Heartache & Stone will need venture no further into the disc than, oh, the second cut to understand fully why the quintet is newly inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. This record has more heart than any half dozen other records you’re likely to encounter any time soon, and musicianship on a par with the best of the breed. They can do barnburning, as on a sizzling rendition of lead singer/fiddler Lisa Fuglie’s “Run, Nellie Anna, Run,” with a breathless frenzy and superbly executed, rapid-fire runs by banjo man Benji Flaming and mandolin virtuoso Matt Thompson; they can do balladry with an equally deft and subtle touch, as they demonstrate on the lovely midtempo yearnings expressed in Kathy Liner’s evocative “Coming Home To You,” a fine, heart tugging performance keyed by Fuglie’s emotional vocal and exhilarating instrumental dialogue between Flaming’s banjo and Art Blackburn’s sturdy acoustic guitar runs. They have an element of surprise going for them too: Stephen Stills’s “4+20” is a certifiable classic of early CS&N lore, and Stills’s own acoustic version is really hard to beat, instrumentally or vocally. But Blackburn finds his way into, through and out of the song on his own terms, not by emulating Stills’s spare, foreboding fingerpicking or haunted vocal, but rather by breaking the song down to a signature, repeating, multi-textured guitar figure, behind which his mates ease in with an appropriately low-key, humming backdrop, as Blackburn tells the story of a life’s hard, desolate road in a sturdy, resolute tenor. Some may miss Stills’s abject, solitary torment, but Blackburn offers a resolute attitude that, despite the lyrical wish for life to cease, suggests a determination to move forward, undaunted by the baggage strewn about his history. And to tip their hat to a fellow Minnesotan, the gang actually works up a rendition of Prince’s “Purple Rain” that picks up steam after the first verse and breaks into a full-on sprint fueled by Flaming’s energetic banjo soloing, Mark Anderson’s clicking-clacking standup bass, and rich, ensemble propulsiveness all down the line. The song still doesn’t make much sense, but considering its source, Monroe Crossing does an admirable job of making it seem coherent. But above all, the band has in Lisa Fuglie a remarkable singer who doesn’t show off a lot of range so much as a lot of feeling, deeply and powerfully so. There’s a bit of Rhonda Vincent in her vocal attack, and some Valerie Smith too (interesting that one of the standout tracks here, “Raven Tresses,” from the pen of Smith’s bandmate Becky Buller, a native Minnesotan herself, finds Fuglie adding smooth harmony support to Blackburn’s foreboding lead vocal), but not so much that she could ever be accused of pilfering another's style. She can hold her own and stand out in a crowd all at once. For one stirring example, check out what she does with her own hymn-like ballad, “Potter’s Field.” Based on an actual incident dating back to 2007, when the remains of 1900 unidentified people were buried in a mass grave in Los Angeles, the song is the proper farewell those forgotten souls were denied, and Fuglie sings it with an admirable balance of reportorial distance that rises in her upper register to palpable sorrow at the unfolding spectacle—“how does one get so forgotten to lie in an unmarked grave in Potter’s Field” she asks in a lyrical passage that pierces us where we live. Fuglie gets way on the inside of any song she sings, whether her own or others’, and above all else, the humanity and the sheer embrace of life she imparts when she sings, makes every song special, a unique journey of its own, and elevates the music of Monroe Crossing to an exalted plane.—by David McGee

Buy it at http://monroecrossing.com/store.html

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024