The Moonshine Ramblers light it up

Halifax’s Moonshine Ramblers may be the new kids on the block, but their ties to the roots of the music they play are far closer than most.

Even better, judging from their performance on last week’s Free Tuesday lineup at the Horseshoe Tavern in downtown Toronto, they do what few other young musicians seem capable of before hitting the stage: they’re already masters of their respective instruments. I checked out the Moonshine Ramblers’ live show on a hunch, after listening to—and liking—their first self-titled release. The release is highly animated and lively – mashing bluegrass to elements of rock, blues and old-time country – not unlike so many other newgrass-friendly bands of late.

Yet the Ramblers ring with authentic country roots and their ability to pluck, play and plunder underlines that they’re a collection of serious players, first and foremost. In other words, they’re positioned to go in whatever direction their music wants to take them.

Positioned in some of the press notes as a variation on North Carolina’s Avett Brothers, I’m happy to report they’re nothing like them. Despite their Mountain Dew®-looking cover graphics and a preponderance for cheap baseball hats and worn flannel, the Moonshine Ramblers are a rough’n’tumble collection of musicians who can each hold their own as soloists but clearly enjoy working as a team. And this music works even better live than it does on their live-off-the-floor debut.

The players are Mark Gallant (banjo/lead guitar), Alex Hastie (lead guitar, acoustic guitar and lead vocal), Adam Pye (bass), Matt Gallant (drums), Andrew Sneddon (dobro, banjo, acoustic guitar) and Scott MacCormack (mandolin). Surprisingly younger than their playing ability, they wasted no time in demonstrating their skills with guest singer Tom Terrell opening the show (Tom has another band – the Modern Grass Quartet – with two of the Ramblers, and he’s joined this tour). Terrell, himself an accomplished acoustic guitarist and singer of great presence, lead the band through four songs, additional Ramblers joining them on stage until it was packed for a rousing, if not rowdy, rendition of “Mojo Workin’” as the stand-off-ish Horseshoe crowd ambled closer and closer to the stage.

As Terrell relinquished the stage, the audience was treated to even more masterful tunes – all new and unrecorded but one – with Hastie and Sneddon trading lead vocals above a barrage of banjo, dobro, electric and acoustic guitar, driven home by the crack rhythm section, assisted by MacCormack’s glowing-red mandolin strings. Sneddon seems the more seasoned of the vocalists and plays dobro that would give Jerry Douglas cause to spill his beer. Their collective sound gels as one, drop-dead harmonies tying it all together while any rough edges add to the allure.

Their influences aren’t at all obvious, but beyond the comparably sloppy edge of the Avetts, this music has some Byrds/Burritos in its gene pool, not to mention the Outlaws, Marshall Tucker and other distinctly southern rock sounds.

Brilliant, frenetic leads by Gallant, Hastie and Sneddon kept things moving in circles, adding to the experience. “Down to the River” featured dark guitar served up at a hyper pace while “Dead of Night” featured three vocals as the music spun itself into a controlled frenzy. Hastie’s softer vocal on the live set’s sole album track, “Heavy Drinkin’ Woman”, with its two-speed delivery, proved a suitable set closer although, by this point, people were dancing and clearly wanted more.

Seemingly more mature than their collective years, these Moonshine Ramblers had to leave the audience hanging – their time was up. Yet, as leaving an audience wanting more is a band’s surest way to be fondly remembered, it’s hoped that they won’t be too long in coming back.

Photography by Eric Thom


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