The Dappled Grays, an Atlanta-based band that has been together for just over sixteen years, is the kind of group that doesn’t let stylistic boundaries confine them. They call themselves a bluegrass band, and they are a bluegrass band – traditionalists, be sure to note the presence of five-string banjo and lack of percussion! However, their version of bluegrass leans heavily toward the progressive side of things, with plenty of jazz, singer-songwriter, and acoustic country influences. Their latest release, Last Night, Tomorrow, is an eleven-track collection of mostly original numbers that allows the group to explore lots of gentle, folky melodies and use standard bluegrass instrumentation in innovative ways.
Fiddle player Leah Calvert provides most of the lead vocals on the album, and her breathy, jazzy style of singing fits the progressive-grass style quite well. She’s not a belter – if one was looking for a major female bluegrass singer to compare her to, she might fall somewhere between Claire Lynch and recent Sierra Hull. But she knows how to match her tone and phrasing to the music behind her, adding in longing and hurt on one track, then sass and a bit of humor on another. This is perhaps most evident on the title track, a smoothly rolling song co-written by Calvert, guitarist Casey Cook, and mandolin player Michael Smith. Her voice is filled with yearning as she thinks of returning home to someone she loves.
Stand In, from the pen of Calvert, has an Alison Krauss-does-Americana vibe, with a few nice instrumental solos and strong vocal harmonies. Calvert also wrote Home’s Not Far (Cider Theme), which begins with an almost cheerful fiddle, then turns darker and more urgent (though a few of the guitar runs and banjo licks feel somewhat misplaced given the overall sound). It’s a well-written song, with lines like “Lay your head down, home’s not far from the heart, dream on, dream on.”
A few songs sung by mandolin player Michael Smith have a more straightforward bluegrass sound. Stayin’ Blues is downright traditional, with a driving, rolling banjo courtesy of Greg Earnest and the classic bluegrass theme of wanting to roam. It’s an enjoyable, toe-tapping number that serves to remind listeners that the Dappled Grays can do straight-ahead grass as easily as they can do imaginative progressive sounds. Smith also sings lead on the Pete Wernick number Gone But Not Forgotten. It’s a bit faster than the Hot Rize version from the early 1980s, lending a stronger resolve to lyrics like “I’ll stay right here ‘til you come home to me.” Smith offers a pleasant, country-style lead vocal that matches the style of these songs well.
The most adventurous number here is the closing track, The Trilogy (A Medley). Clocking in at almost seven minutes, it incorporates three songs: Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies, Tom Waits’ Clap Hands, and Artie Traum’s Fish Scale (which some listeners may recognize from the David Grisman Quintet version). Blue Skies is quick and jazzy, with a nice groove and snappy vocals from Calvert. The band slows things down, though still retaining the jazz feel (with some strong bass work from Keith Morris), for Clap Hands. It’s a neat turn on Waits’ original, which is gritty and stark, with growled vocals. The unique, choppy intro of Fish Scale closes things out, setting off a strong instrumental end to the project.
The members of the Dappled Grays are all skilled instrumentalists, and the music they create here is inventive and strong. Fans of the progressive bluegrass sound – or really, even fans of acoustic jazz – should largely enjoy Last Night, Tomorrow. For more information on the group, visit their website at www.dappledgrays.com.