The 2009 winners of the Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition, The HillBenders have released its second full-length recording; Can You Hear Me? (Compass Records 7 4585 3).
The quintet, formed in 2008 by personnel from diverse locations but now based in Springfield, Missouri, quickly became favorites on the festival circuit appearing at some of the most prestigious festivals, including the Philadelphia Folk Festival, Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, Podunk Bluegrass Festival, Mullberry Mountain Harvest Festival, the Silver Dollar City’s Bluegrass and Bar-B-Q Festival, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival and IBMA’s Fan Fest.
Grounded in bluegrass yet also incorporating influences from country, rock, blues, jazz and Americana music styles, Can You Hear Me? presents a mix of new-grass vocals with a traditional instrumental pulse. This comes from Jim Rea (guitar), Nolan Laurence (mandolin), Mark Cassidy (banjo) – each of whom contribute lead vocals – Gary Rea, Jim’s cousin, (bass) and Chad Graves (Dobro). All contribute to the powerful 3 and 4 part harmony vocals at various times.
Eight of the numbers come from band members but the strongest tracks including the two openers – Train Whistle (Lisa Christie Piccirillo / Erin Sydney / Patrick Thomas Cupples) and Concrete Ribbon (Rich Wayland / Maia Sari Sharp / Keith Sewell) – were penned by other writers.
Memorable among the self-penned songs are the pleading Radio and the pragmatic Spinning in Circles.
There are two instrumentals with Gettysburg, with its long, slow introduction before the tempo picks up and the raging battle commences, perhaps gaining more playing time.
Elsewhere they apply their artistic bent to a cover of the Romantics’ Talking in Your Sleep and Hal Ketchum’s country hit, Past the Point of Rescue, which includes a samba-grass breakdown in Spanish after the second chorus.
Recognizing their ability to bridge the gap between the common music consumer and the bluegrass genre, Nolan Lawrence spoke about their musical philosophy,
“With our widely varied influences, we’re all trying to bring in songs that unify. We wanted to pair bluegrass with the other American music we grew up with —rock and roll!”
Can You Hear Me? is an album that showcases a young band with ambition and talent at a volume that comes across with a passion that is loud and clear.
Watch as The HillBenders perform Train Whistle at the start to a set at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, August 19, this year.
You can follow The HillBenders online.