Bluegrass, like any form of popular music, is at its best when it’s lively, upbeat and given a populist perspective. That’s the kind of music Chris Castino appears to revel in, as his new LP clearly indicates. His earlier efforts with the Minnesota-based jamband, Big Wu, set the stage for what would come, as they made their way from the local club scene to more prominent placement at any number of major festivals, going from Bonnaroo to High Sierra and then any number of high profile gatherings in-between.
Over the last couple of years, Castino has expanded his reach by joining forces with another local outfit, Chicken Wire Empire, and reimagining his Big Wu catalog as part and parcel of bluegrass basics. He then managed to recruit several superstars in the process, among them such notables as Sam Bush, Peter Rowan, Tom O’Brien, Andy Hall, Vince Hermann, Nick Forster, and Keller Williams, and emerged with a set of songs that sounds like an album for the ages. Fresh Pickles may be a somewhat strange title, but the music is as earnest and effusive as any bluegrass collection of a decidedly vintage variety.
Of course, given the talent involved, it could hardly have been shared any other way. Yet to Castino’s credit, he didn’t simply settle for a basic bluegrass arrangement. Opting to take the lead vocals on the majority of the tracks, he treats every offering as a celebratory send-off, with zest, exuberance, and an ample quotient of purely rousing revelry. The album’s opener, Kangaroo, sets the tone with a sprightly set-up that suggests a marsupial in full bounce. The track that follows, Red Sky, maintains that eager, effusive stance, a sound that’s echoed in such selections as Shantytown, Texas Fireball, The Ballad of Dan Toe, and Rhode Island Red, each of which offer further examples of Castino and company’s ability to ramp up the energy and keep a persistent pace.
Even so, Castino is astute enough to vary the template and keep a balance between verve and variety. The rambling narrative Goodbye, Fond Du Loc (The Young Pioneer) adds some emotional depth to the proceedings, while the lighthearted Minnesota Moon and the sway and sashay of Bound for the South and Jackson County provide a reasonable amount of casual caress.
With Fresh Pickles, Chris Castino has remade himself in the guise of a personable picker, one who’s adept at plying personality, skill, and satisfaction in equal measure. It may be his first bid for bluegrass credibility, but he can also lay claim to the fact he’s made an indelible impression in the process.