february 2011

Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen: (from left) Mike Munford, Frank Solivan, Stefan Custodi, Lincoln Meyers. I’m not trying to say I want to be a trendsetter or anything, but I want to be able to make music that I dig for an audience that will listen to it,’ Solivan says. ‘Know what I mean?’

Artists On the Verge 2011

Kickin’ It Up a Notch

Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen rattle the pots and pans and stir up a heaping helping of energized traditional bluegrass at the same time

By David McGee

The International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) has an I in its name for a reason—bluegrass has long since become a worldwide draw for musicians and fans alike and the folks at the IBMA know that.

So does Frank Solivan, one of the most interesting new traditional bluegrass artists to emerge in years, who has taken his art to a whole other level with his third album, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen (his first with his own band), released late last year. Now, Solivan, who makes his home in Alexandria, VA, is American through and through, born and raised in northern California and an ex-Navy man to boot. But as he shaped his own bluegrass voice, he was traveling all over the place: in his childhood years he was playing (and gathering awards at) various festivals; later he taught music lessons in Alaska for a time (he was a mentor to several impressive young Alaska-based bluegrass bands, including Bearfoot) and also sat first chair violin in the University of Alaska’s Symphony Orchestra; and as a member of the U.S. Navy’s highly regarded Country Current roots band he brought bluegrass to the world, essentially, not to mention to people of influence in high places.

ramblerIn 2002, a year before enlisting in the Navy and joining Country Current (the two went hand-in-hand, you see about which more later), he set out on a solo career with a self-released album, I Am a Rambler, on his own Fiddlemon Music label. Kicking off with a lively, pop-tinged instrumental titled “Dirty Kitchen,” from Solivan’s own hand, the album won critical plaudits, for the warmth of Solivan’s singing, for the craftsmanship and inventiveness of his original material and not least for the superb musicianship: in addition to his own stellar mandolin work, Solivan was supported by some real bluegrass heavyweights—Byron House, Rob Ickes (who has played a big part in spreading the good word about Solivan’s music over the years), David Grier and others. In 2006, while still in the Navy, he released another solo album to great acclaim from the bluegrass press, Selfish Tears.

When Solivan declined to re-up in the Navy (after “six years, one month and 24 hours,” he says, in the understated emphasis of a gentleman who would rather not say “enough was enough”), he also moved swiftly to establish his band and his single-minded purpose to follow the bluegrass highway to wherever his music would take him. If Solivan’s music bristles with a sense of movement—not movement in the sense of furious instrumental pyrotechnics but in terms of energy, intellect and passion—then the pattern of movement in his life makes all the more sense.

Frank Solivan (left) is joined by his mother Lorene (in white dress) in a musical get-together in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Lorene sang on Frank’s second solo album, Selfish Tears.

Raised in a musical family—his mother Lorene was a singer (she sang on her son’s second album, in fact); his paternal relatives include a grandmother who played mandolin and fiddle (and, with her sisters, had a vaudeville tumbling act); an aunt who, with her husband, is in the Western Swing Hall of Fame (“she passed on this thing to make every note count, and she was really sweet,” Frank says)—young Frank won fiddle and banjo contests even before he hit age 13, and in high school studied cello and won a spot in the California all-state orchestra. So it’s not surprising to hear Solivan say, “Like this whole thing just kind of kept moving and moving and moving.” Always, around Frank Solivan and music, things were proceeding apace, so to speak.

Solivan: “My dad would take me to the bigger bluegrass festivals on the west coast and I grew up not only surrounded by my family playing music—and they were really influenced by acoustic and bluegrass and country music—my dad would take me to these festivals, fiddle and banjo contests, and it was around me all the time, instruments stacked up in the corner of the house. It was reverse psychology when my dad would go to work. He’d say, ‘Now don’t touch that.’ Being a little boy, my attitude was, ‘I’m gonna touch that; I’m gonna check it out.’

“I played in school, but that wasn’t my passion, really. I mean I did it and even played violin into college. My passion was playing American music, like bluegrass and country, swing and jazz, too, blues, but definitely focusing more on American roots music.”

That he chose this path is due in no small part to Solivan experiencing “a couple of pivotal concerts when I was maybe 11, 12, 13 years old.

“I saw NewGrass Revival and they blew my mind. I was this kid, y’know, and I saw those guys and went, Wow, I’ve seen those instruments my whole life, but I’ve never seen them do that. I thought, I want to be able to do that. That is cool! It wasn’t just the precision of how they played, it was how they played together; the energy they put out as a group was really the impact. Hearing David Grisman was a huge influence on my mandolin playing. Before all of that I played fiddle. I didn’t pick up the mandolin until ’97. I played guitar, fiddle and banjo, listening to Scruggs and Crowe and Bill Monroe—that super high-octane energy. Mike Munford, our banjo player, calls me a ‘high-octane, self-contained bluegrass unit.’ I think part of that is because I want that same kind of energy every time we play.”

Not to get into too much amateur psychology here, but when Solivan talks about the constant and accelerated pace of his musical upbringing in a close-knit family environment, what he’s found in bluegrass is something like what he enjoyed in his formative years: a family. Asked if he could pinpoint why he was drawn to roots music when there were obviously other types of music competing for a youngster’s attention in his own youth, he turns reflective, choosing his words carefully, disdaining flip responses.

The hirsute Frank Solivan

“Maybe,” he muses, “just like the sense of community that it brought. Because it always felt like family when people would whip out their instruments, at a festival or something. That’s what we did growing up, at family gatherings. Just show up at an uncle or aunt’s house, eat a big meal, then people start whipping out instruments, and if you go to a festival it’s kind of like the same thing. I’d see these youngsters, my age, and we put together a band called The Generation Gap; it was with the Washburn family in California. We were 12, 13 years old, and seeing other kids that were into it probably had something to do with it too. It wasn’t like there was a deciding factor or anything. I think the deciding factor in deciding to be a professional musician was when I was in my late teens and playing with a country band. I got a couple hundred dollars for a gig one time and I was like, ‘Well, heck.’ I remember shortly before that I was on a roof with my dad—he was a roofing contractor—it was 120 degrees in mid-summer, out on the roof in California. I remember telling my dad, ‘I gotta learn how to play my fiddle really well because I am not gonna do this for the rest of my life.’ Shortly thereafter I was starting to get some gigs and being paid for them, and I was like, ‘Yep, okay. Let’s see what’s gonna happen now.’”

Okay, so there were multiple incentives to choose music over anything else—especially roofing in the California summer—and so much for psychobiography. Solivan hit the pro circuit. In 2002 he got word of auditions being held for an electric guitarist’s slot in the Navy’s Country Current band, and “won” the spot.

“Yeah,” he says with a rueful chuckle, “I eventually got it and then in 2003 ended up doing pushups in boot camp wondering what the heck I got myself into. I guess six years, one month and 24 hours later I decided to get out.”

Asked about specific influences on his own approach, Solivan answers with a question of his own: “How much you got?” He reels off a number of country artists he admires—George Strait, Alan Jackson, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson—as well as Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder (“oh, my gosh, Stevie Wonder!”), and, being from the Northern California area, singles out one particular east bay funk outfit he reveres, Tower of Power: “We were listening to them last night, my wife and I, and [Dirty Kitchen guitarist] Lincoln Meyers is here with us for a rehearsal tomorrow. We were listening to Tower of Power while we were playing Scrabble, and all three of us were dancing in our seats. It’s music that just makes you want to move. It doesn’t have to be just funk or country or bluegrass; whatever you’re playing, if you can make people do that, and feel it inside while you’re doing it yourself, while you’re playing it, I think that’s the key to good music. It’s not about super-precision all the time. The energy is so crucial.”

To Einstein, energy may have equaled mass times the speed of light squared, but in the Frank Solivan Theorem, energy equals movement.

Frank (left) in his Country Current days: ‘It was a weird fence to straddle, with creativity on one side and the structure of the military on the other, because you have people who may not be your boss and they may not have the same idea as you, but you gotta do it because you’re in the military.’

While admitting those “six years, one month and 24 hours” with the Navy’s Country Current band were “a weird fence to straddle, with creativity on one side and the structure of the military on the other, because you have people who may not be your boss and they may not have the same idea as you but you gotta do it because you’re in the military,” Solivan is ready with an immediate answer when asked what he gained from the Navy band experience that has served him well in his professional life. “Patience. Patience was the main thing,” he states unequivocally. “It afforded me the opportunity to really focus on my own ability and to practice. It got to the point where I was doing a lot more stuff other than playing music with the band, and I just needed to do something different. But it opened a lot of doors for me; I was able to meet a lot of different people all over the country. It was a good experience, it really was. Helped me work with people. Like I say, patience is really key working with people and”—he laughs—“it definitely taught me a lot of that.”

Bassist Stefan Custodi and five-string banjo master Mike Munford joined Solivan on his second solo album; the lineup that became Dirty Kitchen was solidified with the addition of guitarist Meyers, who was recommended to Solivan by a mutual friend. Until Meyers auditioned Solivan didn’t realize he not only had met the guitarist before, he had played with him a couple of years earlier at Nashville’s bluegrass Mecca, the Station Inn, when the Incredible Stringdusters invited both musicians to sit in with them one night during an IBMA convention. “I didn’t realize this was the same cat,” Solivan says. “So we did some jamming at the Station Inn with the Stringdusters long before we had talked about being in a band together. We realized it later because there’s a recording of that night. It’s up on the Internet somewhere.”

Out and about in Boston with Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen

Which brings us to Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, the album proper that has put the artist and his mates on the fast track in the bluegrass world, with enough critical kudos to paper an entire house and intense fan response to the band in concert.

Cue up the hard charging album opener, ”Driftin’ Apart”—an incisive account of a couple coming undone from a thousand little wounds over the years and now paying the price “for lustful pleasures”—and once past the ferocity of the playing—an energizing wash of sound with the banjo, fiddle and mandolin all jumping in and out of the soundscape for pointed solos and engaging each other as well in spirited dialogue—the literacy of the lyrics begins sinking in, and you get jazzed all over again. Solivan doesn’t go for easy rhymes or conventional scenarios of love and loss; rather, in the details he suggests more complex and layered levels of insight, acknowledging the mystery of romantic bondings and the awful hurt of uncouplings, while also addressing topical issues along the way, in language both direct and poetic.

Solivan and his mates do this in both original Solivan songs—he might be the best new bluegrass songwriter, too, come to think of it—and some spot-on covers that might have been penned expressly for him and Dirty Kitchen. As deeply incisive as Solivan’s breakup songs are, John Stewart’s beautiful “July You’re a Woman,” a galloping, keening entry rich in fiddle and infectious “na-na-na-na” lyrical fillips—as well as a delightfully serpentine mandolin flight by Solivan himself—is as buoyant and heartwarming a love song, with the slightest tinge of bittersweet humor, as you could ask for. Love of a different type—that of pure, unbroken friendship reaching across the years—comes from the pen of Solivan’s cousin, Charles Tyson Smith, in the lilting, pastoral “Hello Friend,” and Solivan modulates his vocal just so, to emphasize the warmth and affection emanating from a fleeting encounter with someone he’s close to spiritually, if distant from geographically. Still another aspect of love is explored in the breezy “Together We’ll Fly,” a statement of purpose in which Solivan admits to being his own worst enemy—“I’ve been pinned way too long/to a course I knew was wrong”—but vows to get focused and find a successful path, contingent upon his beloved standing by him along the way. In what seems to be typical Solivan fashion, he takes potentially hackneyed sentiments and finds a fresh twist to turn them to his lyrical advantage: “it’s time to go out and do my thing/I don’t need a prayer or a wing/all I need is you by my side/and together we’ll fly” and “I ain’t scared of working hard/I’ll keep it real and do my part/all I need is you by my side/and together we’ll fly.” Not to be discounted, either, is an exquisitely lyrical instrumental passage in mid-song, in which Meyers’s flatpicked guitar, Solivan’s high-spirited mandolin frolic and equally stirring fiddle support, Custodi’s solid, thumping bass, and Munford’s ebullient five-string banjo underscore the self-affirming scenario Solivan offers in his lyrics.

Frank Solivan (mandolin) with Country Current at the Wind Gap Bluegrass Festival, June 13, 2008

Leaving this theme, Solivan contributes two slice-of-life dramas of real impact. “Tarred and Feathered,” with John Cowan adding his distinctive crying tenor to enhance the song’s anxious mood, is a howl from the other side of the footlights, where glamour and celebrity are less a blessing than a curse to the working musician, who’s become weary of “two-faced women,” the nomadic lifestyle and the routine indignities of “picking my strings from town to town.” Tuneful though it is, this song is relentless in its bleak portraiture of the wandering troubadour’s life. Even more abject is the homeless man Solivan depicts in “Left Out In the Cold,” a decorated war veteran haunted by the horrors of battle, ignored by passersby, alone in the world after a drunk driver killed his wife and son, now struggling to get by on the street. Needless to say, this isn’t one of those happy sounding bluegrass tunes that masks a tale of woe—the music is dark, ominous and born ceaselessly ahead without relief, much as the days are for the homeless protagonist, save for an instrumental break featuring Solivan’s ruminative, atmospheric mandolin conjuring textures both tender and tearful.

Given how Solivan tests his characters in various ways in his own songs, how appropriate for he and his mates to close with a Stanley Brothers tune, “Paul and Silas,” a couple of fellows who knew from being tested. Based on the Biblical tale and using the repeated refrain, “Who shall deliver for me?” the song’s spiritual yearning, its subjects’ resilience and its ultimate victorious uplift in bracing four-part southern gospel harmony make it the perfect benediction for a truly stunning debut.

After his two solo albums, Solivan says his new album both picks up from where the earlier albums left off and at the same time marks a fresh start for him.

“The first project, I’m a Rambler, I had been playing mandolin just for a few years when I recorded it. It’s a slice of time. It was like my first real studio experience where I had a lot of say as opposed to just coming in and playing on somebody’s record. The next one I took the experience I gained from the first one, plus all the recording I’d done and the playing I was doing in the Navy, and went into the studio with my own songs, arrangements and ideas, and it’s yet another slice of time. A good recording. Then I took all of that experience to that point up to when we recorded Dirty Kitchen last January. I really wanted to refine my ideas, and Brent Truitt, who is an incredible musician/engineer/producer in Nashville, definitely helped us with that. We had most of the arrangements and everything before we walked in, but his experience in being able to say, ‘Why don’t you try it like this?’ or, ‘Try this. You have to hear it to hate it’ was invaluable. He can hear if something’s out of tune, out of time, if there’s a phrasing situation that needs correcting; he would say so and you’d think, Yeah, why didn’t I think of that? It’s just the next step. We’re talking about getting in the studio next winter, so my goal is to have some new songs before we go in to record again, and hopefully it will be the next slice of time. I just want to continually get better; I want our writing and our arrangements and our playing to be exceptional every time we get into the studio. And you know, to some people it might be exceptional, to some it might be, ‘yeah, whatever,’ but I’m not doing it for anybody else other than me. My whole attitude is, if people don’t like it, you don’t have to listen. It’s a free country, you can have your own opinion.”

The edge in Solivan’s voice when he talks about people tuning in or tuning out as they please stems from a bit of frustration he’s feeling with bluegrass purists who take him to task for daring to defy convention. He mentions playing a festival with the adventurous young bluegrassers from Tulsa, Rockin’ Acoustic Circus (“they had a cello and are definitely not traditional bluegrass”), along with the Isaacs (“they had some percussionists and some drummers”), and Danny Paisely (“real traditional”). “And then there’s us. We do what we do, and I think we played Gershwin’s ‘Summertime.’ We try to take something from everywhere and mold it into what we do. So some guy backstage approached me, I was putting some food on my plate, and he says, ‘I’m gonna tell you something you don’t want to hear. You need to get away from that liberal crap.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘This is a conservative audience. You need to play more bluegrass.’ I said, ‘You know what? I don’t mean to be rude, but if you don’t like it, you don’t have to sit there and listen to us.’ And turned around and walked away. I was thinking to myself, It’s one thing to not like somebody or maybe their music is not your cup of tea, but I think a lot of the close-mindedness of some of the bluegrass audience could be hurtful to what I want to do, which is bring that music to a broader audience.”

Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, ‘Hello Friend,’ from the band’s first album. Written by Solivan’s cousin, Charles Tyson Smith, the lilting, pastoral song reflects on pure, unbroken friendship reaching across the years. This performance is from Vern’s Stage at the California Bluegrass Festival at Grass Valley, CA, June 16, 2010.

Any account of the Frank Solivan story would be incomplete without mentioning that Dirty Kitchen is not only a band, but a concept. A visit to Solivan’s website finds a section for “The Dirty Kitchen Experience”. This is a house concert plus a three-course or “one pot wonder” meal prepared by Solivan himself. Yes, Frank Solivan is a “foodie.” With experience in the kitchen to boot. He’s even talking about the prospects of hosting a show on the Food Network. “I’m passionate about food, wine, things like that. I’ve worked in a restaurant, a kitchen, worked at a catering service for awhile, my mother was in the restaurant business most of her life, just had this really strong passion for food. So there’s a lot of songs I’ve named like that—‘Dirty Kitchen,’ ‘Salad Bowl,’ ‘Scorchin’ the Gravy,’ you know. We did a ‘Dirty Kitchen Experience’ recently for a guy’s 60th birthday party his wife threw for him. We throw this incredible meal out—long table, for 20 people, we did an appetizer course with smoked salmon, little toast, roasted tomato Caprese salad with toasted pine nut pesto, and then I did an herb roasted Cornish game hen with saffron risotto, made this orange chocolate sauce with this incredible vanilla ice cream. An incredible spread, and a house concert for the audience that’s there. 20 people. And we do another option for 50. I had this on my mind for the band name and I just wanted it all to jibe.”

‘It’s one thing to not like somebody or maybe their music is not your cup of tea, but I think a lot of the close-mindedness of some of the bluegrass audience could be hurtful to what I want to do, which is bring that music to a broader audience.’

Foremost on Solivan’s agenda, though, is expanding the audience for bluegrass while remaining true to the music’s eternal verities—and he cites plenty of examples of artists who have blazed that trail ahead of him as he sets his sights on it, not least of all the founding father himself, Mr. Bill Monroe.

“People don’t realize that Bill Monroe, if you listen to his recordings with his brother Charlie, and with Flatt & Scruggs in the ‘40s, and then you listen to all of them in the ‘50s, there’s this progression, it’s evolution in the music and they were experimenters. They definitely had the traditional Appalachian influences, but you also hear the blues influence in there. I’m not trying to say I want to be a trendsetter or anything, but I want to be able to make music that I dig for an audience that will listen to it. Know what I mean? It seems like we’re being able to do that at this point.”

Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen is available at www.amazon.com

For more information, visit the Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen website: http://dirtykitchenband.com/ or on MySpace at http://www.myspace.com/franksolivan


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