It’s a bluegrass recording that can stand with the best of the idiom.
And it’s from a group – 5 On A String – with a strong local connection.
Mandolinist/lead and tenor vocalist Tim Eccles is a White Rock resident, while fiddler/bass vocalist Hugh Ellenwood, who grew up here, is well-known as archives manager for White Rock Museum and Archives, as well as co-writer – with mother Lorraine – of Peace Arch News’ ongoing Historical Perspective column.
Launched with a CD release concert last month a Vancouver’s Anza Club, the group’s new and long-awaited album, Great Blue North, is that rarity, a self-produced recording that does justice to the sound and presence of the live act it represents.
Those who caught 5 On A String earlier this year as part of White Rock Elks Club’s bluegrass series (a return engagement would be welcome news) know that this is a very tight band with an excellent vocal harmony blend, strong lead vocals and mesmerizing solo picking skills.
All that is amply captured on the disc, engineered by Gary Gillespie, mixed by Mark R. Henning and mastered by Todd Simko with respect to the band’s acoustic sound and without recourse to obvious gimmickry. All that’s missing is the dry wit that typifies the onstage exchanges between Eccles and Ellenwood and bandmates Gordie Sadler (banjo, lead and tenor vocals), Garry Stevenson (guitar, lead and baritone vocals) and Dan Mornar (acoustic bass, lead and tenor vocals).
In the flesh, this low-key banter is as entertaining as the band members’ uncanny ability to trade places on stage without colliding, mixing their acoustic sound ‘old style’ by how close they’re standing to their single microphone.
In a 20-year-plus history, the members of 5 On A String have continued to honour the historic roots of blugrass by bringing their own energy to the classic sounds of such as Monroe, the Stanleys and Flatt and Scruggs.
Sadler’s high tenor vocal harmonies add as much to the authentic bluegrass flavour of 5 On A String as his faultless, rock-steady banjo-picking of the Earl Scruggs school; and Stevenson’s flat-picking solos are fascinating excursions, blistering runs of notes that still manage to maintain both the sense and soul of the idiom.
Dan Mornar has a pure tenor voice that lends itself well to the gospel material, an energetic presence and a wonderful slap style of bass playing that is both rhythmic and sure.
Eccles combines superb mandolin picking with a droll manner and powerful lead vocals that capture the essential bluegrass style; Ellenwood’s richly evocative fiddle playing – and spotlight solos – more than hold their own with the other instrumental talents, while his bass vocals add important texture to the blend.
For those who already like bluegrass this is a highly satisfying album; for those new to the idiom, it’s an excellent introduction. To buy a copy of Great Blue North, visit www.5onaString.com