Dry Branch Fire Squad’s “Live at the Newburyport Firehouse” is bluegrass at its best: satirical and biting, memorable and poignant, a seamless blend of storytelling and song that ends up rousing, entertaining, and downright engaging. The two-disc live set features leader Ron Thomason’s laidback satire and sardonic sense of humor, reflected predominantly in the tales he spins between songs, each tale being the segue into songs such as “Orphan Train,” “Coming to Us Dead,” and “Hot Corn, Cold Corn.”
The Dry Branch Fire Squad – hailing from Springfield, Ohio – was formed almost thirty years ago by frontman Thomason, and they’ve been playing honest, rough-edged mountain music together ever since. In proper folk music form, it’s not like the band is out to get rich: Thomason worked as a high school teacher and assistant principal for much of that time (he apparently retired in 1999). This is the band’s eighth release on Rounder Records and features a total of about 87 minutes of music, stories, and humor. Thomason was joined by Charles Leet (bass), Mary Jo Leet (guitar), Adam McIntosh (guitar, mandolin), and Dan Russell (banjo, mandolin, bass) for the recorded performance and they play quite well together, each taking a turn singing. According to Thomason, he believes that bluegrass is “band music,” not the music of one individual; as a result, each performer has the opportunity to shine.
I quite enjoyed the blend of music and wry, sardonic humor (delivered by Thomason with a wonderful backwoods accent that you really wonder if it isn’t some sort of put-on). Stories like “Cas Walin, World’s Greatest Ballad Singer,” “Banjo Pickin’ vs. Modern Country Music,” “Hippies, Beatniks and Power Easements” are all entertaining in and of themselves and never seem to interfere with the flow of the performance- indeed, since it reflects a live set, it seems largely organic, flowing naturally from Thomason’s laid-back lead persona. From gospel to rollicking bluegrass, the band embraces each tune with trademark enthusiasm (though to hear Thomason tell it in one of his humorous tales, there’s really only one difference between most “old-timey” songs, and it isn’t found in the music).
While the crowd interaction on some albums can be distracting, on this live set it generally fuels the overall performance, keying as it does the storytelling interludes which are interspersed at regular intervals. The music is raw and natural, not synthesized and processed to technopop pablum, full of honesty and heartfelt (if often playful) conviction. “Live at the Newburyport Firehouse” is an entertaining bluegrass romp, and Dry Branch Fire Squad is one of those bands worth exploring for its entertaining humor and energetic music.