Northern Redemption for the The Abrams Brothers
In all of the old legends, it was John Hartford, Jerry Garcia and Country Gazette who rescued bluegrass music from its near-fatal collision with 60’s television. Unprecedented popular recognition had been awarded to roots music in the early sixties by TV culture with Hootenany, a short-lived showcase for all forms of folk music which instantly became first “a craze,” and then trivialized into cartoonish characterizations on The Beverley Hillbillies and The Andy Griffith Show.
It took the anti-traditionalist youth culture of the 60’s to adopt it and give it a hip replacement to bring it striding into the seventies as “Newgrass”.
The controversial style has, at length, drawn more fans than detractors, and, most importantly, persevered. Hybrid innovators as diversely talented as Bela Fleck, the Creaking Tree String Quartet and The Dixie Dregs have pushed the genre to new extremes.
Now, on to the Abrams Brothers, a young Ontario bluegrass band of authentic roots leaning, whose new cd, Northern Redemption, re-imagines that threshold moment in 1968 when bluegrass was on the verge of going prodigal. Brothers, John, 20, and James, 18 (cousin Elijah is on bass), are ten-year veterans of rural Canadian country road-shows, and heirs of four generations of musical heritage. Their cousin Elijah plays bass, while their father, John is often onstage with them, and young John plays an acoustic guitar built by his grandfather.
Successful appearances at the Grand Ole Opry and the recent Jacob’s Ladder Festival in Israel (“We played the Sea of Galilee!”, says John, slightly boggled) have made them a top draw for traditional rural audiences.
Fortunately, they are also prescient enough to see the potential of drawing an audience of young urban ears towards their music with their virtuosity, willingness to stretch the music toward electric instrumentation, and a careful selection of cover tunes that already have global audiences. Coldplay’s Viva La Vida and Rebecca Black’s Friday have already made the point, through viral videos, that the Abrams brothers can bring the kids into the tent. They have been picked up by producer Peter Casperson (Garland Jeffreys, Phoebe Snow), who will be guiding them on towards realizing a broader market for their music. Northern Redemption is the first step towards that goal.
The title track kicks off the record with a harmonic verve which demands repeated listenings. Lyrically and rhythmically tight and insistent, it segues into a low-key harmony song called Windows that recalls Merseybeat and those other brothers, The Everlys. The real kickoff comes with Nothing At All, which combines a Byrds-style electric bass with waves of electric guitar and fiddle.
All original, all cleanly produced and honestly sung, the rest of the record rotates and blends the country folk and rock streams effectively, introducing the mighty Burke Carroll of the Bebop Cowboys on pedal steel in the second half. The album builds to the Coldplay anthem, which in no way outshines the work to that point, but gives a focus to the lyrical thrust of the record. Their songwriting is pre-occupied with finding truth and abandoning the easy answers for a brighter distance. The precociously world-weary sound of them singing “and I discovered that my castles stand / upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand” evokes the same quest for authentic value that the rest of the songs struggle toward. “Standing on the holy ground” is the destination of the final tune, Planet of Seasons.
However they choose to reach that goal, whether by creating a new subgenre of bluegrass (popgrass?) or by honing their songwriting skills into a more personal artistic triumph, the lads seem to be slowly untying themselves from the tree with roots. And they will be going somewhere.
Video by Emma Corby