By Cait Brennan
Sid Griffin is one of the great, unheralded musicians of the last 30 years.
How unheralded? Wikipedia, that self-styled arbiter of “notability,” doesn’t even have a page for him. If it did, it would do well to start by calling him one of the most important founding fathers of alternative country.
In the early ’80s, Griffin’s outfit the Long Ryders was a good decade ahead of the alt-country movement. Combining Gram Parsons-style Cosmic American Music with hard-edged, punk-influenced rock, Griffin, with guitarist Stephen McCarthy, drummer Greg Sowders, and a succession of bass players (notably Tom Stevens) brought a much-needed boot-kick in the pants to L.A.’s Paisley Underground scene, and influenced a generation of bands that followed.
The Ryders rode off into the sunset in 1987, and Griffin, an eighth-generation native Kentuckian, soon pulled up stakes and relocated to London. Being an expat suits him, sir: Griffin the author and music critic has written two fine, critically lauded books about Bob Dylan as well as countless magazine articles; Griffin the broadcaster has applied his dulcet tones and alchemical musicology to the BBC; and Griffin the musician reinvented his band the Coal Porters, originally founded in L.A. as a sort of Long Ryders Mark II. Somehow, in trying to rekindle a bit of “Looking For Lewis & Clark,” Griffin and the Porters accidentally, wonderfully, found a touch of Flatt & Scruggs instead. Thus was invented “alt-bluegrass,” and after hearing the Coal Porters’ new record Find The One, you’ll be glad of it.
Find The One is a gorgeous, engaging, decidedly non-traditional record that brings acoustic folk and bluegrass music squarely into the indie age. The songwriting is outstanding, the musicianship is dynamite, and the whole thing is great fun.
Find The One bolts right out of the gate with “Barefoot On The Courthouse Lawn,” extolling the subtle delights of mint juleps, fresh-mowed grass and hot fiddlers on some mystic summer’s day south of the Mason-Dixon. “Never Right His Wrong” is the story of a woman done wrong for the final time, featuring a great vocal from fiddler Carla Frey.
The band is in fine form throughout. The instrumental “The Betsey Trotwood” allows the group to stretch out a bit, with playful, lively interplay between Griffin’s mandolin, Neil Robert Herd’s dobro, Frey’s lyrical violin, Tali Trow’s stand-up bass, and John Breeze’s blazing banjo work. Virtuoso musicianship is the order of the day on all the tracks, though, and the vocal harmonies between Griffin, Frey, Herd, and Trow are a particular joy, especially on songs like “Brand New Home,” the spiritual, spooky “Gospel Shore,” and perhaps the most fun song on the record, “You Only Miss Her When She’s Gone.” Frey’s “Red-Eyed & Blue” is another highlight, a brokenhearted weeper about a gal who did her man wrong, though he tried his best to give as good as he got.
Find The One was produced with grace and clarity by John Wood, the guiding hand behind classic albums by Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, Loudon Wainwright, Cat Stevens, Beth Orton, and Squeeze among many others. Wood is a natural fit for the Coal Porters, melding the British folk tradition and his alt-rock chops together with the American bluegrass sounds that underpin the Porters’ house. Notably, the liner notes indicate the album was executive produced by the late United States President James A. Garfield (1831-1881), the last of the log cabin Presidents, whose untimely assassination ended a promising career in early sound recording.
Besides late US Presidents, Find The One also features contributions from Richard Thompson, on Sid’s “Hush U Babe/Burnham Thorpe,” a taut and gripping tale of a slave family escaping the Confederacy via the Underground Railroad. Legendary BBC radio presenter Brian Matthew, still going strong at 83, wryly introduces “Ask Me Again,” another sharp, charming Griffin original.
The album features a couple of entertaining covers, too. David Bowie’s “Heroes” gets the alt-bluegrass treatment to great effect, played straight and true, transporting and transforming the Thin White Duke from Eno to Lindisfarne and from Berlin to Louisville and back to Finsbury Park as quick as you like. Herd and Frey trade tender vocals while the band plays on. The Coal Porters’ longtime encore tune, a cover of Mick and Keef’s “Paint It, Black,” ends the record on a high note, with a spirited sitar by Robert Elliott bringing a bit of Brian Jones to the backwoods.
The disc also includes a seven-minute documentary video about the band, in which Griffin details the beginnings of the band (starting with an unfortunate car accident that claimed the job, but not the life, of the drummer in Griffin’s earlier band Western Electric.) It’s a brief but charming distillation of the band’s chemistry, humor, and talent. All in all, the Coal Porters’ Find The One is more fun than most folk bluegrass bands are legally allowed to have, and it’s well worth your attention.
21st September, Friday – Deal, Kent
The Astor Community Theatre
22nd September, Saturday – Mary Hare, Newbury
The Newbury Theatre
Arlington Arts Centre
23rd September, Sunday – Maidenhead, Berkshire
Norden Farm Centre for the Arts
25th September, Tuesday – York, England
26th September, Wednesday – Leicester
27th September, Thursday – Bristol
St. Bonaventure’s Social Parrish Club
28th September, Friday – South Molton, Devon
The George Hotel
29th September, Saturday – Swansea, Wales
5th October, Friday – Towersey
The Barn at The Three Horseshoes
6th October, Saturday – London, England
23rd November, Friday – King’s Place, London