When is a supergroup not a supergroup? Answer: when they eschew any serious suggestion that they are. Consequently, when a gathering of seasoned Canadian old time and bluegrass players sequestered themselves for three productive days in a cabin set in the remote reaches of Ontario’s wilderness, the intention wasn’t aimed at grabbing headlines, but rather, simply making some music.
The musicians involved — Adrian Gross on mandolin (The Slocan Ramblers), Mark Kilianski on guitar (Golden Shoals), Sam Allison on upright bass and bass harmonica (Sheesham and Lotus), John Showman on fiddle, and Chris Coole on banjo (The Lonesome Ace Stringband), took an opportunity to join together during their bands’ respective breaks from touring due to the pandemic. Inspired by the methods used by John Hartford to make music in the old-time tradition, the group opted for sheer spontaneity in a string band setting.
The result, an album titled Adeline, gives the group its name, although they deny whatever formality might have been involved. Indeed, as is often the case with groupings like this, the partnership evolved naturally.
“I came up to Toronto to spend time with my partner during the pandemic touring hiatus, and essentially moved here,” Kilianski recalls. “John, Chris, and I collaborated on some cross-promotional videos, and a video for the Brooklyn, New York-based Flatfoot Flatbush event that transitioned online this year. I’d also been jamming with John and Adrian on John’s porch when the weather was warm enough. If I remember correctly, Chris pitched the idea, but I think we all collectively had the thought of creating something together as long as the pandemic was keeping us in Toronto. We all saw this as a rare moment in time to collaborate on a full-length piece of work.”
After sizing up the situation, things seemed to click fairly quickly. “We settled on the tunes beforehand, so we were all familiar with the material going in,” Kilianski explains. “None of us had played in a group or band setting for a year, so we all took some time to settle into it again. Sam and I had never even met, so we had to feel each other out. Since we play bass and guitar respectively, we were both keenly aware of how those two instruments form the foundational groove together, especially within old time music. We never really talked about it though, and after an hour or two, we were basically on the same page. Most of all, the excitement and release of finally playing music like this was palpable. We’re talking about five musicians who have been doing this as a profession and a passion for years — decades, even. The rust gets knocked off quickly. It’s like coming back to a place you’ve lived for a long time after a year abroad. You revisit all your favorite spots, see your favorite people, while taking the backstreet shortcuts and scenic routes. You get to play in ways that are not satisfying to do alone, flexing skills that you’ve spent your whole life honing. You’re creating vibrations that crash into each other, bouncing off and meshing together, and being absorbed by your body. It’s something we take for granted in normal times, much like hugging. We all hugged when we got to the cabin and that was really special.”
Naturally then, everything evolved rather naturally.
“With the exception of Chris’ song, Paul David, these are all more or less standard old time and bluegrass tunes,” Kilianski continues. “I think a big reason these five individual musicians got together is that we all love old time and bluegrass equally, and really appreciate how much the two overlap. This is a musical space that John Hartford occupied frequently. He also was open to experimenting between and outside the standard formats of these types of music. In bluegrass, you tend to have improvised solos passed around among each of the musicians. In old time, you usually have a constant melody on the fiddle, with the other instruments supporting and accentuating the inherent driving rhythm of the piece. Hartford adopted both of these, and a host of other possibilities in his ‘windows’ system of playing as a band. He’d take an old fiddle tune, and each musician could do something different every four, eight, sixteen or however many bars. We took this system as inspiration to try different things and explore different textures on our instruments. That’s really what makes the music unique here. We were basically improvising the texture of the sound the whole time.”
Not surprisingly then, the players made the most of their time making music together. Again, Kilianski picks up the narrative.
“After some set-up and a nice meal, we got right to playing,” he continues. “We only had a few days, so being holed up in this remote cabin helped us focus on playing as much as possible. It was really like being at a tiny festival. Wake up, have some coffee, play some tunes, eat a meal, play tunes, go for a walk, play tunes, etcetera. We stayed up later and later every night. Lots of stories, lots of laughs, irreverence, music talk. It’s really how old time music is meant to exist… just hanging out with friends and playing tunes. We’d choose a tune, talk briefly about the chords, do a few takes, and move on to the next. We all like getting weird, and this was our chance to get as weird as possible. In a full time band, I think there’s pressure — both internal and external — on striving for perfection. Since we were alone and not playing with our regular bands, this was an opportunity to get as weird as we wanted, without the usual nagging perfectionism.”
Unfortunately, the prospects for making this an ongoing entity appear rather small. “This ‘band’ will probably never play a gig other than one we did for the Quarantine Happy Hour page on Facebook in June,” Kilianski says. “That’s kind of the beauty of it. We have four different bands represented here. We all came together to make the best of a bad situation. I mean, if they wanna hire us for Bonnaroo, we could probably make that work, but we’re all excited to get back to touring with our regular bands.”
Kilianski is also quick to note that Canadians have a similar affinity for bluegrass, roots, and folk music as those living south of the border, and for good reason. “They’re almost as popular in Canada as in the US, by my estimation, perhaps, even more popular,” he suggests. “There’s a lot of support for the arts here. Culturally, these two countries are pretty similar. They share the continued effects of European colonization. Alongside a lot of grim realities, you have the mixing of European, African, and Indigenous musical traditions. Bluegrass is a prime example of this, and Canada’s own traditional musics are very similar, with a different flavor. As with so many other elements of humanity, music does not adhere to the arbitrary borders of nations. Toronto specifically has a thriving bluegrass and old time scene, and the musicians here are less preoccupied with the lines of genre. I find a lot of folks here might have one primary style, and will dabble in many others, as well as be open to mixing and experimenting across genres. This goes for bluegrass, old time, and any other style really, traditional or otherwise.”
Kilianski’s own influences reflect that sort of timeless trajectory as well. “When I was learning about the guitar, and about music, I was really into the blues rock bands of the ’60s and ’70s, particularly Led Zeppelin,” he explains. “That stuff introduced me to elements of Delta and Chicago blues, Celtic, and bluegrass music. Growing up in New Jersey, I didn’t know anybody who played that stuff. Then in college at Berklee, I met a ton of fiddle, mandolin, and banjo players. The sound and the feel drew me in, and the ethos of jamming anywhere, anytime sealed the deal.”