Snake Oil Medicine Show - Bluegrasstafari

The slaphappy mountaineers of Snake Oil Medicine Show return with a new cd full of glimmering, gallivanting world music. The band’s recent travels in Jamaica have infused their old-time melodies with a new-age populism, unleashing a hybrid of bluegrass, reggae and jazz. They call it Bluegrass Tafar I. These Boone, NC natives have traveled the country for years showcasing their wide-ranging sound. Their live shows bounce between musical styles like a wild bull charging through a record store. Their colorful costumes blend perfectly with Phil Cheney’s canvases, which are painted in real time behind the band as they tear along.
The album opens with a reggae bass line, doubled on guitar. A banjo drops in, and then a soprano sax and drums and already we're into new territory. A reggae song with a bluegrass bend and a jazz overtone. Interesting. The bouncy Caribbean swing of "Is it True?" is perhaps the cd's strongest track. "Is it true what they say or is it true what I see?" sings banjo player Andy Pond, in one of the five songs he wrote for the album. "They tell me one truth when I am young / I grow up to find out that truth is wrong / Why tell the children lies? / Why not open their eyes?" A jovial sax solo by Acoustic Syndicate's Jeremy Saunders gives way to an especially poignant and catchy piano solo by Sean Foley.

The '50s pop-swing of "Lately" features a scintillating boogie-woogie piano break leading into a fat, honking sax solo as multi-instrumentalist Caroline Pond handles the doo-wop backing vocals. They follow with the dark funk and jagged descending lines of "Flies (in the Yard) Water." Written by Acoustic Syndicate bassist Jay Sanders, who sits in on both acoustic and electric bass on the cd, the neo-classical middle section features an ascending counterpoint to the rest of the mood, as the saxophone and piano lines intermingle..

The title track "Bluegrass Tafar I" opens with a rollicking banjo picking over a joyous rhythm: "Sing, dance all night / It's party time / Yeah dance all night / We don't need wine / I'm a Bluegrass Tafar I." Snake Oil's lyrics always search for a common ground we can all understand. "Stay up late / Man the pickin's great / Break out your axe / Don't hesitate / I'm a Bluegrass Tafar I." A filthy fiddle solo rips and squonks, while the saxophone soars and the whole ensemble turns into a brass band for just a split second before slamming back into bluegrass. A banjo run leads into a frantic acoustic guitar solo as Billy Seawell's percussive drumrolls and intricate fills keep everything shimmering and upbeat as the band grinds and gurgles underneath. The instruments fade up and down in the mix as the short-attention span band jams away. They stop everything on a dime and ease into an angelic reggae groove before heading back into the melody.

"Ras Tabla" was fashioned from a live jam which happened in the studio. George Pond's bass and Seawell's tabla open up the song, creating spooky spy music with an Eastern texture. It's an introspective yet searching sound, like they're hard at work on a nefarious plan. If Snake Oil were planning a bank job, this would be the theme song. The rootsy shuffle and hybrid newgrass flavors of "Burying Ground" followed, alternating between dark dimensions and enchanted rants. "Optimist Song" boasts an old-time melody with a modern snap, as the drums burst forth in marching band glee: "Put a smile on your face each and every day / That's the way you put the world in a better way / You treat your friend like a friend each and every day / That's the way you put the world in a better way."

"Love Tea Party" is a blissful island groove featuring George Pond's endlessly expressive bass and a flawless African-flavored guitar solo. The cd closes with "Purple Purple," 24 minutes of twisted psychedelic dub. The twirling sounds and varying degrees of intensity leave the listener battered and beaming by the end. With so many talented multi-instrumentalists in the band and sitting in, it's hard to know who gets all the credit. Other musicians contributing to the album include Mad Tea Party's Jason Krekel on fiddle, tenor guitar & vocals and Ras Alan on guitar & dobro. Michael Marx appears on trumpet, Jane Bazemore on clarinet, and Jonica Pond on accordion & vocals. Also appearing was Tovah Jacobson on paint, brushes & canvas. Yes, even the painters get credited in the liner notes. It's just that kind of band.

"One music, one people / One voice and one song / When the music's beginning / You cannot sit long / I'm a Bluegrass Tafar I."

-- Paul Kerr