In a seemingly endless string of gigs over the last few years, they’ve had the opportunity to grow and develop, both onstage and in the studio. Incorporating a dedication to and respect for the traditional elements of bluegrass and the string band with a youthful embrace of pop-oriented writing and non-traditional instrumentation, Commonfolk fits easily into the latest wave of forward thinking “neo-traditional” groups, alongside Steep Canyon Rangers, Railroad Earth and the goofball antics of Keller Williams’ collaboration with the Keels.
Driven by the shared lead vocal and writing talents of Aaron Plantenberg and Isaac Deal, on banjo and guitar respectively, the band is rounded out with mandolin, Jeff Redman’s upright bass and, ummm... saxophone. Yes, saxophone, as well as some flute and pennywhistle, ably provided by Jim Leatherwood.
Granted, it’s not as surprising a combination these days as it may have been a while back, but considering the mostly percussive nature and role of stringed instruments in bluegrass, Leatherwood’s flowing legato lends an unusual and welcome sheen to the album. Throughout the CD, saxophone weaves in and out of the vocals and rhythm section, stating bits of the melody here, providing bluesy fills there, and sometimes doubling the driving “chop” of Bradley Adams’ mandolin.
Of note is the obvious work these guys have done on their vocals, in both lead and harmony. Though the rambunctious, loose nature of a Commonfolk show is represented well on this recording, it’s not at the expense of technical correctness. The harmonies sound better than ever, with smart arrangements and clean but still perfectly human sounding execution, retaining the feel of a bunch of guys crowded around the microphone.
Deal’s lead vocals are brash and loud, contrasting with Plantenberg’s lighter delivery, and man, check out “Overtime” for a fantastic example of how well this group sings together — those big fat harmonies in the chorus are on par with some of the best you’ll find. This song also demonstrates Commonfolk’s own brand of fusion, with highly melodic sax soloing and Plantenberg’s pop leaning songcraft.
Now, silliness isn’t exactly absent here — you can hear somebody spontaneously whoop and holler in the middle of Deal’s powerful vocal cadenza on the traditional “Working On A Building.” And the band simply breaks down in giddy laughter a few seconds after the close of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
In a way this ability to cut loose illustrates the difference between a bluegrass band having fun with the material, and the inadvertent parody that comes with too much smugness — see Hayseed Dixie’s most recent debacle of an album as an example.
Commonfolk comes across as a band that knows when to reel in the goof factor and just put their heads down and play. When they do so, the results are quite effective, as on the dark storytelling and crisp picking in “Dead Man Whispers” or the stunning harmony break on the album closer “Waterside,” both of which Plantenberg penned.
Commonfolk has upped their personal ante with the release of this self-titled debut. All those gigs have paid off, and what may have started as a loose affiliation of pickers and drinking buddies has blossomed into a full-fledged musical unit, delivering fine tunes and performances throughout.
Any musicians out there may want to take note: the instruments Plantenberg and Adams use were built by amazing Bryson City luthier, Bob Gernandt, and the recording made by the skilled folks at Lands Creek Studios.
Though on a brief hiatus, Commonfolk will surely be hitting the road hard in the coming months, so keep an eye and ear out for the local boys — they might not be local for too much longer.