Living here in the northeastern US, having a birthday in late December can seriously limit any plans to celebrate another full spin around the sun. Whether you consider this a blessing or a curse, I do recall that for the past two years, Mother Nature threw a party in my honor and dropped plenty of snow on our part of central PA – meaning that the celebratory plans kept us at home as we wrestled with the shovel out on the driveway for a few hours. Sometimes, however, fate and good fortunes can go hand in hand, and this time around, unseasonably warm temperatures brought us the opportunity to take a road trip south of the Mason-Dixon line, and catch some much-needed live music from one of our favorite Canadian bands.
Having paid plenty of attention to the touring schedules of Canadian bands into our part of the US over the last few months, it had been disheartening back in August to learn last-minute that The Slocan Ramblers were performing at The Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival. This event was just a stone’s throw away for us, but alas, the date conflicted with work commitments and we could not make it work. Second chances don’t come around too often, but discovering their US tour dates for this month, we were drawn to one show in particular (the fate) – their tour finale at the Front Porch, an intimate music venue in Charlottesville, VA, that also happened to land on my birthday weekend (and the good fortunes). Not that any excuses are needed to visit the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, but how could we possibly stay away when knowing that these four talented bluegrass musicians were in town?
We’ve had the pleasure of enjoying music from The Slocan Ramblers in both MD and PA over the last few years, and eagerly anticipated this chance to share in their high energy levels and superior musicianship once more. Comprised of Frank Evans (banjos/vocals), Adrian Gross (mandolin/vocals), Darryl Poulsen (guitar/vocals), the trio were joined by the incredibly talented Charles James (upright bass), who has very quickly filled the void since the departure of long-time bassist Alastair Whitehead. The crowd at The Front Porch were ready to dance and to be entertained, and of course, The Slocan Ramblers did not disappoint, cranking out 23 tunes over the course of 90 minutes.
Having spent time working on new music for their upcoming studio album, “Up The Hill And Through The Fog,” the band were naturally keen to road test some of these tunes, launching immediately into “Bill Fernie,” one of Darryl’s new compositions, before progressing rapidly into the popular “Mississippi Water Heavy Blues” from their 2018 JUNO-nominated “Queen City Jubilee” album. “We’re going to do a tune of mine, this one is called ‘Harefoot’s Retreat,’ and it was a pretty cool opportunity a few months ago to record a set of tunes with a string quartet up in Canada,” Adrian announced, the first of several insights offered about their recent unique collaboration with the New Orford String Quartet. “And they were amazing musicians. They were very overqualified for what we do.” Cue the perfect pause for the laughter, and their own priceless nods to acknowledge our responses. “They were kind of the real deal, so it was a real thrill to be able to play with them and record with them.”
Frank would take time to share a tale about the impetus for his new track “I Don’t Know,” written whilst dealing with isolation and separation during the pandemic. “When the lockdowns happened, I was living in Toronto and my girlfriend was living in California at the time, and talking through all the stresses that were involved. Everyone who’s been in a long-distance relationship before, knows it’s talking every day, [and] it’s difficult to come up with new and exciting conversations, and it’s even trickier when you’re confined to a room,” Frank recalled. “The events that happened throughout the day, they don’t have to be that dramatic. I remember she kind of [at] one point laid down the ground rules and said, ‘you just can’t ask me what I had for dinner. I just can’t do that conversation ever again.’ So, we decided to write some songs together.”
During a momentary pause while Frank switched between (and tuned) banjos, Adrian would address the room once more. “I hope there’s some clawhammer banjo fans in the room?” he asked, eliciting a few hoots and hollers in response. “If not, that’s too bad, because we’re doing it, we’re going to play you one of Frank’s originals.” And as Frank wrapped up his final tuning, Adrian added that the next track, “Platform 4,” was a little unorthodox – one that certainly allowed a stunning display of banjo picking. “I take it this is a clawhammer friendly space? Anytime there’s a clawhammer banjo hanging out in your green room, it’s a good sign,” Frank acknowledged at the close of the song. “That, along with your plates and skewers and vegetables and potato salads and hummus. Yeah, we played here before and we had this dinner that we’ve always remembered. It made a big impression on us. Talking it up to Charles, our newish bass player, on this whole tour it was ‘just wait until you get to Charlottesville, everything will be alright, and they certainly delivered’.” Pausing again to revel in the crowd response, Adrian would jokingly add that vegetables are a rarity on the road, before Frank’s clawhammer licks signaled the arrival of another recent popular hit, “Mighty Hard Road.”
As is customary during a performance from The Slocan Ramblers, time was reserved for a medley of popular and traditional bluegrass cover songs – this time paying homage to the music of Dave Evans, Flatt and Scruggs, and Red Allen. And offering a mixture of new tunes and old favorites down the stretch, the quartet paused for Adrian to make one final address to the room before jumping into “Sun’s Gonna Shine In My Back Door Someday,” a popular and rousing closer. “Big thanks to Emily, Clare, Mike, [and] everyone who makes these shows happen,” he offered. “This is a special place. If every town had a Front Porch, we would just play at every town’s Front Porch. We’ll be back if they’ll have us.” Appreciative of the kind words, the hosts returned the gesture and insisted that The Slocan Ramblers stick around a little while longer for an encore performance. And with their highly energetic combination of “Them Way Long Time Ago Blues” and “You Said Goodbye,” the four Canadians sent everybody home in great spirits.
Faced with the prospect of an eleven-hour drive to Toronto the next day (although Frank resides in Nashville right now), the Slocan Ramblers provided an outstanding evening of music, leaving nothing on the table in Charlottesville. This band always impress, and are best experienced live – and the fact that we were able to do so during this particular weekend, no less, simply made my birthday an incredibly memorable one. And with hints of a return to ‘these parts’ in early 2022, I don’t plan to stop perusing their website and tour schedule anytime soon.
- Bill Fernie (New)
- Mississippi Heavy Water Blues
- The River Roaming Song
- Harefoot’s Retreat (New)
- I Don’t Know (New)
- Bury My Troubles (New)
- Streetcar Lullaby
- A Mind With A Heart Of Its Own (Tom Petty cover)
- Platform 4
- Mighty Hard Road
- Call Me Long Gone (Dave Evans cover)
- Somehow Tonight (Flatt & Scruggs cover)
- Hello City Limits (Red Allen cover)
- Hillbilly Blues
- Won’t You Come Back Home (New)
- Hill To Climb
- The Girl I Left Behind
- *Unknown Title – Instrumental*
- Long Chain Charlie and Moundsville
- Sun’s Gonna Shine In My Back Door Someday
- Them Way Long Time Ago Blues (John Hartford cover)
- You Said Goodbye