The Howlin’ Brothers are pure Americana. Their base is bluegrass and they show enormous skill with traditional instruments like guitar, banjo, and mandolin, plus piano, harmonica, and fiddle. When they venture into Cajun dance music, Phil Madeira guests on accordion. And they do venture into Cajun music, on the songs “Louisiana,” and “Monroe,” which has a fantastic fiddle and the same sort of feeling Hank Williams captured with “Jambalaya,” a great sense of freedom and joy.
They also do rockabilly (“Pour It Down”) and traditional gospel (“Yes I Am!”) as well as country straight from the honky-tonk (“World Spinning Round”) and mountain folk music (“Troubled Waltz”). “Boogie” is just what it says it is, an infectious hoedown that reminds me of The Grateful Dead in the sheer sense of fun it invokes. They even venture into reggae, somewhat less successfully with “L9ve,” which seems a bit jarring in this collection of songs.
But lest you wonder if they are still at heart a bluegrass band, never fear. Just listen to the mournful “Sing a Sad Song,” the delightful banjo-driven “Pack Up Joe,” the keening wail of “I Was Wrong” and the contemporary bluegrass sound of “Hard Times.”
There are 13 songs on this CD, and all of them are originals, written by band members Ian Craft and Jared Green. That is amazing, considering the versatility of the material and how familiar most of it sounds even on the first listen.
The main things that make The Howlin’ Brothers so special is the sheer emotion they put into their music, especially the upbeat, danceable numbers, and the great instrumental prowess of both the band and their musical guests, including Ricky Skaggs on mandolin. They all play together so well and producer Brendan Benson, a colleague of Jack White’s, gives them a great live feel that lets them be their natural selves. Benson even joins in on the fun on vocals, washboard bass and tambourine!
Not enough can be said about the awe-inspiring prowess of Craft on fiddle and banjo. These instruments are the heart and soul of bluegrass, in my opinion, and Craft is a master at both. And the great thing is that he never sounds as though he’s trying to be impressive. He just is.
I have it on good authority (from their press agent) that these guys are a hoot to meet and talk to. I know they are a sheer joy to hear. If you are a fan of Americana, this is a CD you will want in your collection. You will enjoy listening to it for years to come.
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