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Preview: Alison Brown, June 13th

The news that Alison Brown is coming to Toronto is huge. The last time she tried, she was waylaid by the threat of SARS. But you may not know her – or her music. All the more reason to read on, fair music fan – as her Sunday night show at Hugh’s Room will provide you intimate access to see and hear one of the best practitioners of the 5-string banjo, and a hand-picked band known for their ability to reconfigure any genre that comes their way. If you think this is traditional fare, you’d best strap yourself down for a pleasant awakening.

Her first release – 1990’s all-instrumental Simple Pleasures – turned heads immediately. And many of the heads she’d initially turned with her grasp of the instrument joined in to play on the album: David Grisman, Alison Krauss and Mike Marshall. In no time, this progressive banjo master drew fast comparisons to Béla Fleck for her penchant for blending of jazz inflection to country and world/ethnic influences, across a backdrop of unconventional instrumentation for effect. Yet Brown was no overnight success. She came up in the tried’n’true tradition of winning banjo contests which lead to the typical unveiling at the Opry, ultimately graduating to a role in Kraus’ Union Station. That’s where the attention began to snowball. Adventurous to a fault, Brown has released 10, largely under-the-radar – yet thoroughly consistent – discs, although her 2000 release, Fair Weather, took home a Best Song Grammy for a show-stopping duet with Fleck on “Leaving Cottondale”. Last year’s brilliant The Company You Keep is similarly, and characteristically, outstanding, supported by her truly simpatico – and equally eclectic – band, delivering on every sharp turn and banked curve in their quest to deliver on the spellbinding music that continually flows from this prolific, virtuosic composer and musical leader.

If all of this wasn’t accomplishment enough, Brown is the mother of two children, Hannah and Brendan. A natural academic, Brown had momentarily – years prior – side-stepped her musical career to attend Harvard, followed by UCLA, with a detour into investment banking. Heeding the call to return to her music, her bright business mind set the stage for personal success in her own career. In 1995, she co-founded Compass Records with her husband and band-mate Garry West, known as “one of the greatest independent labels of the last decade” (Billboard). Compass – with its roots-rich roster of traditional and world-friendly music also serves as an artist-focused haven of creativity which, in the world of record companies increasingly run by bean-counters, would not otherwise exist.

In 1991, Brown was named “International Bluegrass Music Association Banjo Player of the Year” – yet such a title brings with it certain implications about what she does which, in context, is far too limiting. This is music for those capable of appreciating a musician living to push, if not redefine, musical boundaries. Having an opportunity to hear and see this caliber of music unfold, live, is a too-rare opportunity and one that, if you’re able to take the ride with her, provides the chance to dig your nails into your chair and hold on for dear life – all in the name of musical grace and in the spirit of innovation, not to mention the overall exhilaration that results from having taken the trip.

– Eric Thom

posted by Roots Music Canada’s Shawna Caspi

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