With a nine year track record of mixing authentic bluegrass, down-home humor, and original, progressive songwriting, NYC’s premier bluegrass band for all ages, Astrograss, pulls out all the stops with the release of their third CD, The Colored Pencil Factory.
Two years in the making, The Colored Pencil Factory presents a living document in song, showing how a traditional art form like bluegrass can speak of the joys, dreams, and even the troubles of today’s kids in a musical language saturated with cultural history. Notes Astrograss’s Jordan Shapiro, “I believe that bluegrass music, and all American folk music, is essential listening for kids, and I also believe that the purity of the music is important. We made The Colored Pencil Factory without the use of any amplifiers, drums, pedals, or ‘effects.’ We recorded the album in our fiddle player's living room and played the songs just the way we’d play them at a park or in a kitchen. It's pure, organic, natural Americana.”
In addition to engaging settings of traditional tunes like “Shortenin’ Bread,” “Cluck Old Hen,” and “Sail Away Ladies,” the album showcases a collection of new songs by the team of Jordan Shapiro and Joe Grossman. Shapiro and Grossman have been writing together since 1995, and their musical collaboration over the past 17 years has received accolades at venues ranging from off-Broadway theaters to bluegrass music festivals.
Every song on The Colored Pencil Factory celebrates imagination and adventure with high energy and high enthusiasm in a blend of old-time Appalachian mountain music, traditional bluegrass, progressive bluegrass/newgrass, and even a bit of Eastern European folk music.
This mixed bag is aptly illustrated by the album’s opening track, "Make It Up," which hits the road with virtuoso fiddler Sarah Alden rolling out her interpretation of a traditional folk melody taught to Jordan Shapiro by master Albanian accordionist Raif Hyseni, which serves as a prelude to humorous, up-to-date lyrics that challenge kids to make something out of nothing by having fun with their imaginations.
The CD’s title song exhorts kids to live a more colorful life by seeking adventures. Musically, it’s a real showpiece for the banjo with a style that rivals the exuberance of a mariachi band. The heart of bluegrass music is the instrumental team of banjo and fiddle in combination with authentic three-part bluegrass vocal harmony. Astrograss members allow these elements to effortlessly romp through every track of The Colored Pencil Factory. The three-part vocal harmony has its thrilling a cappella moment in the sun on “Honeybells.” Astrograss banjo wizard Jonah Bruno contributed “Playground,” a whirlwind number that showcases his virtuosity. Bass player Tim Kiah joins with Sarah Alden to share the vocal lead in Kiah’s “Happy, Sad and More Song” about all the different feelings one can have in a day. Mandolin player Denis Lichtman gets to display his beautiful clarinet tone on the upper respiratory lament, “Brand New Nose,” and Jordan Shapiro and Sarah Alden have a great time bantering comedy lyrics back and forth in the Shel Silverstein inspired song, “Grave Diagnosis.”
School outreach is vital to Astrograss, and their school programs not only integrate bluegrass history and instrument identification, but also feature “Astrograss Songwriting Challenges,” in which kids are invited to write poems, which Astrograss then sets to music. A highlight of The Colored Pencil Factory is “Music Makes Me Feel,” a musical adaptation of a poem by nine-year-old Marcella Fellus Borgenicht.
The original, adult version of Astrograss was formed in 2003, but it only took the band two years to decide to expand its horizons to include kids. All five members of Astrograss are music educators, and when “Astrograss for Kids” was born in 2005, it was inspired by classroom experiences in Brooklyn public schools. By 2006, Astrograss had won the Time Out NY Kids “Battle of the Kids’ Bands” contest at NYC’s Knitting Factory and subsequently served as backup band for family music superstar Dan Zanes on the benefit album Bright Spaces 2. Dan Zanes also produced the debut Astrograss kids’ music album, Astrograss for Kids.
The current configuration of Astrograss has been together for four years, and in that time they’ve honed their sound while playing 100+ performances, ranging from kids’ shows to weddings to bar gigs to pig roasts to bluegrass festivals. The Colored Pencil Factory is the first Astrograss CD to feature the current lineup.
Astrograss has played the kids’ stage at the world famous South by Southwest festival in Austin, TX, and, since 2007, the band has performed regularly on the family stage at the legendary Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in upstate New York. Other performance highlights include World Café Live (Philadelphia), Higher Ground (Burlington, VT), and such prestigious NYC venues as Lincoln Center, Symphony Space, and The Brooklyn Academy of Music, in addition to many family friendly venues in NYC, including Joe’s Pub, Washington Market Park, and Madison Square Park. In its “grown-up” format, Astrograss is one of New York’s hottest acoustic acts, touring extensively throughout the Northeast, playing clubs, festivals, theaters, private parties, and weddings.