Off The Wagon" is the Trail Band's 11th album and, true to itself, this 8-piece combo characteristically shifts from one acoustic style to the next with confidence and verve. The eleven song CD starts off with Marv Ross's locomotive romp, "The Christmas Train". Sung by Rindy Ross (lead singer of Quarterflash) this tune has that classic Sun Records-Johnny Cash slap-back groove provided by Marv's staccato D-18 guitar strum and drummer Dan Stueber's clickity-clack rhythms played on the side of his snare drum. Eddie Parente and Gayle Neuman burn on twin fiddles while Cal Scott stokes the tune with some sweet blues harmonica. The lyric captures Marv's memories of his grandpa who always arrived late for Christmas due to his working as a railroad engineer for Union Pacific.
"London Town" comes next and this Celtic-inspired tune is sung by multi-instrumentalist Cal Scott (guitar, piano, cornet, mandolin, harmonica) who wrote this with renowned fiddler, Kevin Burke. It tells the true story of the Irishmen who, after World War II, sailed to England to work and help re-build London after it was bombed by Germany. A soaring melody by Cal and wonderful penny whistle / fiddle interplay by Phil Neuman and Eddie Parente (violin, viola) lift this celebration about the power of music "the whole world 'round". The traditional Irish session jig, "The Rambler" is imbedded as a second bridge and Dan Stueber's Irish bodhran (drum) provides the rolling heartbeat.
"When I Cross The Plain" features Rindy's strong vocal and Marv's driving guitar and banjo. Mixing two low trombones with bluegrass-y violin and Cal's mandolin is a unique Trail Band combination first heard on their album, "Oregon Stories". Sung from the point of view of a feisty elderly woman looking back on her life from her deathbed, Marv's lyric mixes humor, defiance, and longing. Rindy's passionate harmonica playing and Eddie's hot licks on the violin take the song out with a whoop and a shout. "Tell 'em I don't want no wreath - tell 'em I had all my teeth - tell 'em I'll be throwing away my cane when I cross the plain."
"The Smallest Act of Kindness" is one of those songs that moves you to the core. Written shortly after a death in his family, Cal Scott captured all the emotion and heartache is his tune expounding the "essence of the good books one and all". There is a hymn-like aura to this work that is sung with tenderness and strength. Phil Neuman's pennywhistle solo is exquisite. It's not easy to put The Golden Rule to music, but that's exactly what Cal has achieved with this composition that is a call to the best in all of us to act.
"Eleanor Plunkett" was composed by the blind Irish harpist, Turlough O'Carolan in the early 1700s and "A Pinch of Snuff" is a traditional Irish reel. Eddie Parente is one of the most gifted and versatile violinists in the recording world today and on these two instrumentals he demonstrates his unique ability to go from playing achingly gentle phrases to all-out quick tempo'd 16th-note runs. Going from a slow number to a 'burner' has been a trademark of Trail Band concerts and CDs going back to 1995 when Eddie and the Trailsters recorded "Christmas Eve / Christmas Day" on their fifth album, "Immigrant Dreams".
"Christmas Valley" was written and sung by Marv Ross. It tells the true story of an unwed mother and a "lost hippy carpenter" meeting by chance one night and falling in love in the small town of Christmas Valley, Oregon. Creating hope out of despair is the message and the parallels between this true NW tale and the original Christmas story is what inspired Marv to compose. Mick Doherty on bass and Dan Stueber on drums give this a Neil Young-ish pulse. Rindy's plaintive harmonica seals the deal.
"The Blues" is sung by Gayle Neuman (violin, recorders, trombone, banjo) in this Marv Ross tune about a strong woman's acceptance of living a solitary life in the rugged Blue Mountains in Eastern Oregon. The signature instrumental theme is played by Rindy on soprano sax and Eddie on violin. Cal's piano and Marv's guitar provide the rhythm and Mick's acoustic bass gives the song it's swirling 6/8 feel. Danny's drumming whispers just a hint of jazz-swing in the instrumental minor section. "Everyone knows it comes and it goes in these mountains we all call The Blues..."
"Go West - A Jack Tale" is Mick Doherty's (hammer dulcimer, guitar, banjo, bass, jaws harp) solo songwriting debut for The Trail Band. Mick's lyrics were inspired by the traditional Jack Tales popular in Appalachian folklore. Mick has Jack heading out West to Oregon after encounters with ' conjurors' and a "green-eyed beauty". Performed in the original "Trail Band" style mixing full brass with a string band, this jaunting folk ballad harkens back to the band's roots from their 1992 debut, "Voices From The Oregon Trail".
"Hello I Love You Goodbye" was arranged by Marv Ross and Phil Neuman (tuba, trombone penny whistle, cornet, recorders) in the popular Mexican style called "banda". Mixing dramatic Norteno brass and military-like percussion with lightening fast tuba phrases, this uptempo waltz tells the story of an ill-fated romantic encounter between a man, a woman, and her "yellow tailed bird from Brazil". Inspired by the dark short stories of Raymond Carver and the phrasing of Bob Dylan's "To Ramona", Marv's narrative is both wry and tragic, illustrating the human tendency to project both love and hate onto innocent third parties.
"Rooftop Rag" is Cal Scott's swing instrumental excursion that puts a smile on your face and a tap in your toe. The "A" section is brought to life by Eddie's violin and then repeated by Mick on the hammer dulcimer (not your typical swing instrument). Cal's cornet takes us into the Duke Ellington-inspired minor "B" section and Danny's tip-of-the-hat tongue-in-cheek drum solo harkens back to the twenties when wood blocks ruled and hihat pedals weren't yet invented. Gayle on slide trombone and Rindy on soprano sax fill out the sections. The band loves this kinda music - yowza, yowza, yowza...
"Ain't Loved Enuf of You" Marv wrote this on banjo and the band played it live in the studio on a hot August afternoon at Secret Society Studios. Mick and Rindy sing it like they want it and we got it on the second take. Not bad for a bunch of folky-poppy-jazzy-early music-Mariachi-boomer muso types that played their first gig together 20 years ago on Halloween night in Cleveland, Ohio.
God bless The Trail Band and pass the ammunition!