Unique is a word that often gets thrown around loosely when discussing music. It’s generally used as part of a hyperbolic description rarely fitting the artist in question. Cup O’Joe, on the other hand, is an ensemble that fully embodies that word. Based in Northern Ireland, this family band presents a creative fusion of bluegrass and folk music, full of originality and progressive instrumentalism, all of which is captured on their latest release, Why Live Without.
Ten of the eleven tracks on this recording were written by members of the group which consists of Rueben Agnew on guitar and vocals, Tabitha Benedict on banjo and vocals, along with her husband David on mandolin, and Benjamin Agnew on bass and vocals.
The recording opens with Hope. With lead singing by Rueben, this song explores the question of why we should live through all of life’s turmoil and struggle without the sense of hope. Weathered and Worn, sung by Tabitha, is a song with a smooth, emotive feel. Accompanying herself on clawhammer banjo, Benedict effectively delivers the lyrical message of this world’s temporary pleasures and the promise of eternity.
Azazel’s Escape is a piece which demonstrates the band’s imaginative instrumentalism. Tabitha and David Benedict’s performances in particular demonstrate their progressive approaches on their respective instruments.
Lamb is another gospel-oriented track with a message of what Christ has done for his people. This song, as well as Navigator, features great fiddling from guest musician Niall Murphy
City is rendered in an old time vein and once again features Tabitha’s masterful clawhammer playing. As the name implies, this song discusses feeling a sense of peace in the midst of busy living within the city.
Hard Life is a powerful song that speaks of enduring and conquering in the face of difficulty. It’s another song performed in a traditional bluegrass vein as is Be True To You, a barn burner of sorts that maps out the journey and that challenges of finding your soul mate.
Lightning is by far the most experimental track on the entire project. With a jazzy feel and organ playing by John McCullough, this piece demonstrates Cup O’Joe’s versatility.
The project ends on a smooth note with the group’s rendering of the hymn, The Old Churchyard. With minimalist instrumental backing, this track captures the elegant beauty of Tabitha’s lead vocals.
Cup O’Joe is without question a distinctive band. Their material and sound is a melting pot of bluegrass, folk, and other styles of acoustic music, all performed in a fresh, contemporary fashion. The group’s sensibilities as vocalists and instrumentalists come through on every track. You can’t deny the variety and originality. It’s all there.