Arts

Local Hop: New discs from fiddler Joe Davoli, bluesman Ron Spencer, rockers Count Blastula

Jam packed: Count Blastula at the 2018 Sammy Awards. Michael Davis photo

Each of the three compact discs reviewed here were deservedly nominated for 2019 Syracuse Area Music Awards (Sammys) in three different categories. Only one took home a trophy this year, attesting to the overall high quality of Sammys’ submissions.

Joe Davoli. Golden Rule (independent). 

Scan the names of the top 20 finalists every year at Nashville’s Grand Master Fiddler Championship and you’ll rarely see a contestant from our own Empire State. Most of those fiery fiddlers hail from Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Regardless, Central New York is home to a downright dynamic fiddler working in the Irish tradition, and Golden Rule shows him to be a master in his own right. He is fully capable of lighting a fire under the best step-dancers in the world with all manner of arpeggios, rolls, trebles, cuts and bow slurs.

Having honed his chops playing bluegrass for the Delaney Brothers, Irish rock with Ceili Rain and Irish pub tunes with the Flyin’ Column, Joe Davoli now stands at the peak of his game. He may not yet be an official Grand Master, but in 2017 he was inducted into the North American Fiddlers’ Hall of Fame. On Golden Rule, his second solo disc following 2009’s Game Plan, Davoli channels the Emerald Isle from O’Carolan to “Danny Boy,” from jigs to reels, from waltzes to planxties.

Along the way, Diamond Joe puts aside the violin to pick mandolin and tenor banjo and bow a little chin cello. He even delivers a couple sparkling vocals on “Spread a Little Love Around,” embellished by his own whistling, and “Still Got a Crush on You” by Nashville cats Paul Overstreet and Dean Dillon.

While most of the CD’s 12 tracks were cut at Bradley Brook Studios in Eaton, those two sung songs were waxed at Syracuse’s HooliHut and engineered by Ceili Rain bandleader Bob Halligan Jr., who pumps up both tunes with his electric bass lines and backing vocals. In fact, Halligan’s all over the Davoli disc!

To make Golden Rule truly rule, the fiddler collaborated with a half-dozen of the top musicians in town. Halligan co-produced along with Davoli, played plenty of tasty piano and electric bass and sang his heart out as usual. First-call drummer Josh Dekaney, who plays an array of percussion from Roland pad to rub board, propels the opening medley of jigs, while multi-instrumentalist Nick Piccininni picks a lovely dobro to kick off “Sourgrass and Granite” by Toronto tunesmith Brian Pickell.

Burt Mitchell, Davoli’s Ceili Rain bandmate, adds Celtic authenticity to the proceedings by blowing lively lines on Irish flute and pennywhistle. On tracks such as O’Carolan’s “Si’Bheag Si’Mohr,” Mitchell’s humble whistle plays counterpoint to Davoli’s fiddle, and his flute enlivens a medley of “Christ Church,” “Sally Gardens” and “Red-Haired Boy.”

The disc’s most ambitious track, O’Carolan’s “Planxty Fanny Powers,” enjoys a symphonic arrangement pitting Davoli’s plaintive fiddle against Halligan’s craftsmanlike piano and Mitchell’s ear-popping pennywhistle.

The rarely recorded “O’Carolan’s Concerto” shows Davoli’s fiddle freewheeling over Halligan’s stately piano along with some super-smooth acoustic bass playing by West Genesee High and Ithaca College alumna Jordan Morton, now based in Brooklyn.

Two top tunes from separate ethnic backgrounds, “How Great Thou Art” and “Itzikel,” round out Golden Rule, and both benefit from Morton’s big-bottom sensitivity. “How Great Thou Art” is based on a traditional Swedish melody, while “Itzikel” is a klezmer number although Davoli transforms it into a hornpipe. The dance tune was introduced to the Irish tradition by British fiddler Kevin Burke, now living in Oregon. Morton opens “Itzikel” with a slyly dissonant bass intro, and the Russian freilach turns into a “happy tune” indeed due to Davoli’s arrangement and Mitchell’s fluent Irish flute.

The beloved standard, “Danny Boy,” appears here as “Derry Aire,” one of the names of the ancient Irish melody on which the popular song was based. Davoli’s instrumental version is aptly reverent and deliciously unrushed as he tremolo-picks his mandolin over Halligan’s complementary piano comping.

Golden Rule was nominated for a 2019 Sammy in the Americana category. To contact Joe Davoli, visit joedavoli.com.

Ron Spencer Band. Into the Blue (Real Gone Records). 

If the composer credits on Into the Blue are any indication, they should consider changing the group’s name to the Spencer-Gibson Band. As a singer, Mark Gibson knows how to structure songs, so his compositional skills lay an exceptionally strong foundation for the band on this steel-edged, swingin’ blues set. Gibson’s songs include the catchy opener “Closer to the Bone,” along with “(I’m Doin’) Ah-right,” “Callin’ to Me” and “Fine, Fine Woman.”

Guitarist Rockin’ Ron Spencer and Gibson, his bald-headed blues belter, co-wrote “Addicted to You,” “So Wrong for Each Other” and “Cold Outside,” my nomination for the 2020 Syracuse Winterfest theme song. Gibson also collaborated with bassist Bob Purdy on “It’s Time,” and Bob’s booming bass authoritatively rocks that timely tune.

Spencer’s arrangements and production, recorded by Jeff Moleski and engineered by Steve Lloyd at Moletrax Studio, aptly showcase the instrumental work throughout, especially Rockin’ Ron’s definitive, declarative guitar playing as when he jumpstarts “Fine, Fine Woman.” Keyboard contributions come care of guest musician Dan “Cato” Eaton, whose piano brings a warm New Orleans’ feel to “Cold Outside.” Cato also blows some Jimmy Cavallo-like sax and adds vocals and percussion when the spirit moves him.

Drummer Ross Moe, solid as a rock from count-off to coda, coordinates the clever syncopation of “So Wrong,” which also features some agile Hammond B-3 fingering by guest Mike Davis, photographer with the Syracuse New Times.

While Gibson’s and Spencer’s originals are the heart and soul of Into the Blue, two covers still stand among the record’s top tracks. Gibson delivers a leering vocal on “Cadillac Walk,” a 1977 Mink DeVille story-song by Moon Martin, who pens a sly automotive metaphor for ignitable erotic adventures. Then a swampy Stax-like arrangement cures “Blind, Crippled and Crazy,” a Southern-rock-style barnburner written by the rhythm’n’blues team of Charles Edward Sr. Hodges and Darryl Carter.

Into the Blue was nominated for a 2019 Sammy in the Blues category. The Ron Spencer Band will perform Friday, June 21, at CC’s on the Green in Elbridge and July 22 at Johnson Park in Liverpool. Visit ronspencerband.com for information.

Count Blastula. Jive Honey (independent). 

Move over, Dark Hollow and Skunk City: Make room for Count Blastula!

The daring psychedelic quartet led by guitarist Adam Fisher exploded onto the Central New York jam band scene with a memorable appearance at the 2018 Sammy Awards spotlighting songs from its first CD Exotic Candy. This year Count Blastula took it a step further by winning Best Jam Band trophy for its venturesome sophomore disc, Jive Honey.

The seven tracks kick off with “August Heat” a bold ballad with organ underpinning by key man Mike D’Ambroisio, a sharp lead vocal by Fisher, and brilliant bass runs by Jeremy Walts. Two guest musicians, Josh Dekaney and Mike Dubaneiwicz, turn up the heat with snappy drumwork and stunning saxophone, respectively.

The disc’s standout number, “That Ol’ Slimmerin’ Sauce,” is three minutes and 18 seconds of instrumental joy as fiddle, keyboard and cascading guitar all improvise on a riveting repeated riff.

“Human Family” is built on reggae-like rhythms as Fisher’s scratchy chording and reverbed vocal coalesce over Walts’ relentless, pulsating bassline. With its wild wah-wah intro, “Mister Blister” is an all-out psychedelic jam, an uplifting instrumental with a harmonious, high-powered bridge all played over an incessantly chugging rhythm.

Fisher’s vocal on “Bee’s Honey” is somewhat obscured, but the stoptime arrangement catches the ear, as does Fisher’s single-note flurry on lead guitar. Buzzing bees are suggested by a clever array of electronics including a tube plugin on the voice, Dubaneiwicz’s flutes that sound whirling bee-ish and the guitar embellished with phase-shifter, overdrive, reverb and a Leslie cabinet plugin.

Count Blastula’s sole foray into country, “Saddle Sore,” is an upbeat number in which drummer Jim Durham’s percussion mimics a galloping horse. As though playing around a prairie campfire, Brendan Gossan’s fiddle duels delightfully with Fisher’s guitar.

The disc climaxes with “A Little Dab Will Do Ya,” a slow, dreamy and loud instrumental in which Fisher’s guitar plays a lively call-and-response pattern over Walts’ buzzing bass bottom.

Jive Honey features just seven tracks but its brevity fulfills an ageold entertainment industry maxim: Leave your listeners wanting more. So we anxiously anticipate Count Blastula to exceed and enhance its inventive rock concepts in coming years.

Count Blastula will perform Friday, June 21, and Aug. 23 at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que; July 8 at Johnson Park in Liverpool; July 12 at Shifty’s Tavern; July 18 at Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge; and July 27, 5:15 p.m., at Oswego Harborfest’s Riverwalk Stage. Visit countblastula.com for information.

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