Once Upon A Time, the latest release from West Virginia’s Circa Blue on Orange Blossom Records, is without question their most ambitious and artistically successful recording to date. And it’s a testament to the dedication and perseverance of Steve Harris, guitarist and vocalist with the band, who has overseen the evolution of the group over their brief, four year professional history.
Harris and banjo picker Matt Hickman are all that remain from the original lineup, which had initially included Steve’s brother Dave on bass and Ron Webb on mandolin. That was the listing on the debut Circa Blue album in the winter of 2012, a launch mired in some sadness for the guys as their actual original mandolinist, Mike McDonald, had recently died quite suddenly as that album was being recorded.
But they pushed through that, just as they have numerous additional personnel changes, leading to what we hope will be a stable roster going forward. And as new talent has come into the band, Harris and Hickman have given them room to shine their own lights with both fiddler Malia Furtado and bass player Ashley Stewart welcomed as lead vocalists alongside Steve. The variety the three songsters add to this record is marked, as is the inclusion of male and female voices.
Harris is a serviceable singer, though perhaps lacking a bit in nuance, but he does a fine job on Brink Brinkman’s Carolina Dust, a bluesy ballad, Before You Leave Here, a barn burner of his co-written with David Morris and Matt Naveau, Queen of Hearts, a grassy cover of the 1981 hit for Juice Newton, and a somewhat obscure Gordon Lightfoot number, Whispers of the North.
He also adds a lovely duet with Furtado on I Sing Your Song, one of the record’s most satisfying tracks. Written by Harris with David Morris and Dawn Kenney, it’s a tender love song with appropriately understated accompaniment. I can see this one getting the attention of bluegrass radio.
Malia also takes the lead on Once Upon A Time, another of Steve’s compositions, with a quirky change in the chorus from the bright, upbeat sound of the verses. Her smooth and subdued delivery provides a lovely contrast on these tracks.
Ashley sings on a nice old time-flavored cover of the chestnut, Angeline the Baker, and Tripped, Stumbled and Fell, a fun swingy song from Dawn Kenney and Rick Lang. Hearing her comfort with that second, another of the disc’s strongest, leaves me wondering why she wasn’t tasked with Queen of Hearts as well.
The pickers are featured on Cold Frosty Morning, an old fiddle tune that had become a standard in bluegrass and old time music. The Circa Blue arrangement starts with banjo and mandolin playing the melody, with fiddle joining in as the others change octaves, before the whole band joins in for a lively romp. Both Hickman and mandolinist Garrett Wren demonstrate their ability on this one, as does Furtado who is also a first rate fiddler.
Once Upon A Time shows the steady growth of Circa Blue, marking their continuing claim to move into headliner status. Look for the album at the band web site, and wherever bluegrass music is sold.