The new release from Circa Blue is accurately named. In A Darker Blue, this Northern Maryland trio puts the blues in bluegrass.
The title gives a solid hint, of course. Further evidence comes from a glance through the titles of the 13 songs included here – Haunted, Drunkard’s Moan, Dark as a Dungeon, Ain’t Got No Money, Dark Hollow, and I Still Look for You.
And if those clues elude you, you won’t miss it once the music starts, even when the tales of woe are set to a blazing bluegrass tempo. You can hear the despair in the fiddle of Chris Sexton and the resophonic guitar of Gaven Largent and in the mournful voices of Steve Harris and Ron Webb.
The best of the best here is a Webb and Harris original, Ain’t Got No Money, the sad tale of a guy who lost his wife, lost his job and lost his money transformed perfectly into a swing tune. It’s far and away the best original song in this collection. Imagine being so down and out that a beggar “said I’m sorry as he thew a quarter at my feet.”
Other standouts are Dark as a Dungeon, a Merle Travis song popularized by the Country Gentlemen, I Still Look for You, a musician’s lament about too many miles on the road and too little time at home by Tom Clowser, and Dark Hollow. This bluegrass standard has been cut countless times, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bluesier arrangement than this one.
I’m also partial to Let the Lower Lights Be Burning, an old hymn lifted by the pairing of Harris’ lead vocal and Webb’s tenor and a simple but elegant guitar break from producer Aaron Ramsey.
And if all the blues get you down, Circa Blue tucked a pick-me-up in the middle of the darkness, a rip-roaring instrumental from the band’s banjoman, Matt Hickman. I have to confess that I don’t always “get” how instrumentals are named, even when I hear the composer’s explanation. But I “got” Lead Foot right off the bat. The tune, which races along from start to finish, propelled by Marshall Wilborn’s tasteful bass playing, was named after a friend of Hickman’s was caught speeding.
At the moment, Circa Blue’s picking and singing are stronger on balance than their writing. But as the band mates develop as songwriters to the point where most of their originals are as solid as Ain’t Got No Money and Lead Foot, Circa Blue’s following is sure to grow.