Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Woodspell plays Catalan bluegrass in Barcelona

Although Woodspell coalesced at the beginning of 2020, its origin can be traced back three years earlier when the members of the Barcelona-based bluegrass band first met at the Barcelona Bluegrass Camp in 2017. It was certainly prophetic, given that the event is organized by the Al Ras association, an organization which has been devoted to promoting bluegrass music in their native country since 1998. The musicians continued to foster their relationship by taking part in local bluegrass jams before deciding to meet on their own and work up some material. 

Their initial incarnation was solidified as a band called The Silky Ramblers. It proved to be the vehicle they needed for some of their own original material, along with the classic tracks they were weaned on. 

“What brought all of us to bluegrass music and the scene was the straightforwardness and rawness of playing acoustic, and the sense of community that this music fosters,” Isaac Casas, the band’’ vocalist and mandolin player, explains. “We didn’t only find a music genre that is vital, engaging and energetic, but also something resembling a new family that would happily get together regularly to share something it feels is vital to our lives. On top of that, we don’t know any other music genre where you can so easily meet and perform with your heroes!”

While Casas says they took their early inspirations from such iconic individuals as Bill Monroe, Tony Rice, Norman Blake, Sam Bush, and John Hartford, he also lists more modern influences as well, among them, Joe K. Walsh, Old Crow Medicine Show, Punch Brothers, and Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen. It was that desire to progress with a more personal approach that led them to retire The Silky Ramblers and rebrand themselves as Woodspell. That included their decision to include songs sung in their native tongue, Catalan. 

Nowadays the band consists of Casas, Oriol Aguilar (double bass), Jordi Marquillas (fiddle and vocals), and Cristóbal Torres (acoustic guitar). They manage to maintain a fine line between traditional sounds and original compositions, with an eye (and ear) towards emphasizing their intricate arrangements and a very personal approach. 

“As individual musicians, we come from very different backgrounds — rock, jazz, classical, folk, and musical theater,” Casas notes. “Hopefully this is noticeable in our music.”

That said, their timing turned out to be less than ideal. The band initially decided to convene in February, 2020, but shortly afterwards, the advent of the pandemic made it impossible not only to perform, but even to rehearse. “We’ve been focusing on writing new music, finding our own sound, and trying to make sure that when gigging is possible again, we’ll have put together a repertoire that reflects our best possibilities,” Casas tells us. 

Still the initial buzz they’ve gotten from those that have heard their music suggests some promising possibilities. “People have given us a great reaction,” Casas insists. “So many people keep on commenting that they appreciate that we sing in Catalan, and that we’re determined in our efforts to find our own sound and to arrange the songs in a more rich and surprising way for the listener.”

He also notes that there is an actual bluegrass tradition within their region, and he credits the Al Ras association for furthering it. “It’s led by Lluís Gómez, a great Catalan banjo player and multi-instrumentalist,” he notes, also offering kudos to such outfits as the Barcelona Bluegrass Band and Los Hermanos Cubero for helping to bring the music to wider realms. 

So too, the members of Woodspell have been fortunate to probe possibilities on their own as well. “We have been lucky enough to meet some of our heroes at the Barcelona Bluegrass Festival, and we’ve been able to pick with them in an informal manner,” Casas recalls. “We’ve met Tony Williamson, Tony Trischka, Scott Gates, and Jeff Scroggins. Some of the Woodspell members have also been participating in ‘confinement videos’ during the lockdowns with Chris Luquette and Jake Schepps.”

It’s obvious then that Casas and company have a deep devotion to the music they make. “We truly believe that bluegrass is a very special music genre,” he reflects. “It’s vital, sometimes frenetic, always engaging and energetic… and so much fun! We love its rawness, but, on the other hand, we also appreciate the musical virtuosity that so many of its musicians show. We also think about it as a communal shared experience, and we truly think of it as something that’s very valuable.”

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.