The High 48s - Up North

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Judging from the contents of their third release, the High 48s won the 2008 Rocky Grass band competition with a combination of confident picking and lots of original songs, especially for a somewhat traditional sounding band. Their energy and atavistic attire brings to mind the Johnson Mountain Boys of thirty years ago. Three decades of removal from bluegrass music’s early days, however, means the High 48s have a more progressive neotrad sound than the JMB. The 75 percent original material also distinguishes the Minnesota quintet.

Fiddler Eric Christopher provides two tunes and banjo player Anthony Ihrig composed “Darrington” in tribute to the bluegrass hometown of the northwest. The tune features guests Mike Compton and Randy Kohrs whose bubbly breaks resolve the tension between Ihrig’s modern take and Christopher’s traditional response. Compton also plays on Christopher’s “Little Odessa.” Bassman Rich Casey and Johnson’s brother, Chad, on mandolin complete the band.

All three covers receive excellent treatment. They include a slower tempo version of Ola Belle Reed’s “I’ve Endured” and “Paul and Silas” from the Stanleys, along with “Dirty Old Town” from “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” composer Ewan McColl. Guitarist Derek Johnson offers five solid compositions. “Easy To Get Lost,” “The Cliffs Of Red Wing,” and especially the fine uptempo bluegrass song “Shoes,” are quite good, if not extraordinarily original. The other pair are limited from a bit too much DNA still remaining from songs that most likely influenced them. You can still hear melodic traces of “Two Highways” in the family tree of the title track and Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me” in “Sad Lonesome Eyes.”

Christopher, who also fiddles with the James King Band, proves clearly the instrumental star of a tight and expressive band. Ihrig provides a worthy counterpart above a reliable rhythm section. It is always refreshing to hear a bluegrass band whose vocals aren’t exclusively trios and quartets. The High 48s may go too far the other way. Derek Johnson is a good lead singer, but they take too little advantage of the sibling duet. “Paul & Silas” is a happy exception and a model for building a distinctive vocal sound on the duet. The High 48s have areas for improvement, but certainly should be playing much more outside of Minnesota and Wisconsin. (The High 48s, 701 Randolph Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102, AM