The Canadian bluegrass band that calls themselves The Local Group describes their approach to making music somewhat broadly. “Our sound has been described as ‘tight and zany’,” says the band’s mandolin player Justin Vilchez. “We try to really be dynamic in our arrangements, and work unexpected sonic textures into our material, like banjo drumming, playing card guitar a la Johnny Cash, and country talk-singing. You’ll also hear various folk instruments in our stuff, like harmonica, penny whistle, and cajun triangle. We put lots of focus into vocal harmonies, borrowing stuff we learned from singing in high school choir and barbershop together. That being said, we like to get rowdy when we do more straight-ahead bluegrass material. We’ve even been called a ‘zoomer-grass’ band, which I think speaks to our youthful energy onstage.”
That energy is indeed infectious and a credit to the band’s intrinsic bond. Banjo player Jaxon Lalonde, bassist and fiddle player Ethan Peters, and guitarist Elliot Dillabough met while still in high school in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and first performed together at a talent show while they were still in their mid teens. In 2018, Lalonde met Vilchez, who came from Melbourne, Australia, at a bluegrass festival in British Columbia, and subsequently invited him to come to Saskatoon for the winter and play with the band.
“Not realizing how cold it gets on the prairies in winter, I agreed,” Vilchez says. “We’ve been playing together ever since.”
If their sound seems eclectic, it’s little wonder. Vilchez said their influences cover a vast musical spectrum. “A big one has been the Slocan Ramblers from Toronto,” he noted. “We love their arrangements. We’re also huge fans of the Stanley Brothers and Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys. On the less traditional side, we try to take songwriting inspiration from Town Mountain, John Hartford, Johnny Cash, and Gram Parsons. We also represent some Canadian sounds, whether it’s folk legend Stan Rogers or traditional Quebecois fiddle music.”
To that end, the Local Group has performed throughout Western Canada — Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia — and played in a variety of venues, from bars, house concerts and theaters, to town halls, churches, and schools. “It ends up being a lot of time driving, because Canada is a pretty big country and cities are spread out,” Vilchez notes. “We’re planning to make it to more of the east side of the country next year, as well as to the States.”
In addition, the band frequents the festival circuit throughout Western Canada, having performed at the Blueberry Bluegrass Festival, the Northern Lights Bluegrass & Old Tyme Festival, the Shady Grove Festival, the Saskatchewan Jazz Fest, WayneStock, Chesterfest, and the Ness Creek Music Festival. They’ve also had opportunity to perform with a number of notable Canadian artists, including Corb Lund, Zachary Lucky and Bobby Dove, and Clayton Linthicum of the duo Kacy and Clayton.
“Geographically, Saskatchewan is a bit out of the way for most touring artists,” Vilchez points out. “But we’ve been lucky enough to have shared festival bills with The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, David Davis & The Warrior River Boys, The Price Sisters, Special Consensus, Missy Raines, and many more.”
Happily too, they’ve been well received by the folks back home. “There’s a very strong music scene in Saskatoon, and we have a lot of friends and fans who encourage us to keep going,” Vilchez insists. “We’ve developed a wide range of fans from North America and all parts of the world. From generations who grew up with the traditional bluegrass sounds of Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers, to teenagers and younger folk stepping into the genre for the first time. We really try to keep our music relevant, and we write a lot about issues of living in the age we find ourselves in, as well as keeping true to the bluegrass sound, the music and the roots that were set out before us.”
The band currently has two albums to their credit, The Local Group Sings and Plays Songs and Also Tunes, released in 2020, and Nero‘s Waltz, released this past June. The latter was produced by Clayton Linthicum of Kacy and Clayton. “Most of it was recorded live off the floor, with a few overdubs, while I sent in all my tracks from overseas in Melbourne,” Vilchez says. Both albums are available at The Local Group’s Bandcamp page, as well as at most streaming services.
In addition, a live Local Group album is due out soon.
“We play a mix of originals and covers,” Vilchez says. “We like to express ourselves through original music, and most of the songs on our new album are originals. But we also love traditional music. We play a few French Canadian songs from the 1600s, some old Appalachian songs like Fair and Tender Ladies and All the Good Times Are Past and Gone. We also do covers of some of our favorite bluegrass bands like the Stanley Brothers and Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys. We like to have a varied show.”
With that in mind, the band has its own ideas as to why bluegrass enjoys such ongoing popularity.
“I think a lot of what draws people to bluegrass music is the authentic feeling of the genre,” Vilchez suggests. “Even though it’s been almost 80 years since many of the standards were written by Bill Monroe and his contemporaries, there is so much raw emotion poured into these songs that it is impossible not to connect it with even now in 2022.”
He notes another reason as well.
“It’s social music at its core. Even here in Saskatoon, we have a strong jamming community that’s familiar with the standards.”