Charm City Junction.
By Daniel Neely
Charm City Junction, a Maryland-based group that has recently released its self-titled debut, calls what it does “acoustic roots music.” It’s an apt description because each of the group’s members comes out of different “streams” of tangentially related traditional styles. Traditional Irish music is one of these styles – it’s the reason I write about the album here – but it doesn’t dominate the overall sound. Indeed, none of the styles do. Listen to the album as a whole and you’ll hear something exciting: well put together music that draws from different springs and, from there, finds ways to play across stylistic boundaries. Charm City Junction does this with great flair and in a way that is easy to like.
Each of the group’s four members is an accomplished musician in his own right. Patrick McAvinue (www.patrickmcavinue.com) plays the fiddle and mandolin and sings, and he comes with a stellar reputation. In addition to having recorded with bluegrass luminaries such as Bobby Osborne, Del McCoury, Marty Stuart, Paul Williams and J.D. Crowe, and performed at places like Carnegie Hall and The Kennedy Center, he was the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Momentum Instrumentalist of the Year for 2015.
Brad Kolodner (www.bradkolodner.com) plays banjo and sings, and grew up in the old time tradition. One of the leaders of the clawhammer revival, his father is Ken Kolodner, a widely respected hammered dulcimer player and old time fiddler. Brad and Ken made a pair of albums, “Otter Creek” in 2010 and “Skipping Rocks” 2013, that were not only critically acclaimed but they received extensive radio airplay on folk shows around the country.
Charm City’s bassist Alex Lacquement (www.alexlacquement.com) is a jazz and classical player and music educator from the Baltimore area. He not only plays with this group, he is a member of the band Bumper Jacksons, he records and tours with the Kolodners and he is an in demand player in the region.
However, of the group’s members, the one I am most acquainted with is button accordionist Sean McComiskey. I’ve admired McComiskey’s playing for years, and like his bandmates he comes with a sterling reputation, growing up not only in Irish music, but learning from one of the tradition’s greatest button accordion players (his father is accordion legend Billy McComiskey). Listening to Sean, it would be hard to argue that the father’s magic didn’t rub off, however Sean found his own distinct voice on the instrument early on and with it has built a strong reputation over the years in groups like the Kitchen Quartet (with the Ghost Trio’s Cleek Schrey, and sean-nós dancers Shannon Dunne and Kieran Jordan), the Old Bay Ceili Band (a who’s-who of the Baltimore/Washington DC scene), and the great NicGaviskey (with Bua’s Sean Gavin and the brilliant MacGabhann sisters, Caitlín and Bernadette; nicgaviskey.blogspot.com).
With both vocal and instrumental tracks to choose from, the album features a great deal of variety. Of the CD’s 14 selections, there are three that are conspicuously “Irish” in sound: “Joe Bane’s Barndance,” “The Bogs of Shanaheaver,” and “Torn Jacket/Come West Along the Road.”
Each of these tracks is beautifully done and reflects well on the tradition. McComiskey leads the way here, but it’s clear the band’s members are sensitive to what constitutes a traditional Irish sound and have done well to realize it here.
There are some other really great tracks as well that reflect the other traditions as well. “Frog on a Lily Pad” and “Margarets’s Waltz” both stand out to me, as does “Last Chance.” They’re very danceable tracks with great melodies and smart arrangements. I particularly like “Greasy Coat.” There, they’ve taken a well trod tune from West Virginia and added a bit of daring to its arrangement. It’s something that reminds listeners that while the group has gone to great lengths to incorporate the old, their music is about using it to find a new path.
There are some lovely songs here as well. Kolodner does a great job with the lead on “Train On The Island,” while Lacquement handles the vocals admirably on “I’m Troubled,” a song that rolls along with a great bluegrass feel. However, my favorite vocal track is “I’ve Got A Woman,” on which McAvinue sings. It has an easy bounce and fine mandolin work, but I particularly like McAvinue’s voice, which recalls Jerry Garcia’s in his great collaborative work with David Grisman.
“Charm City Junction” is a refreshing, smartly done album. These kinds of projects don’t always work, but there’s a novelty to the mixing of styles here that is compelling and successful. It helps that the band’s members all play at a high level, but it’s easy to hear how each one is not just listening to the others’ music but listening through their own boundaries into the stylistic traditions of the others. This is what I think has illuminated the path to the fertile creative ground the group’s found here. If you love Irish music and have any interest at all in the sounds of bluegrass or old time music, you will definitely want to check this out, it’s a roots collaboration done right. For more information, visit the band’s website at www.charmcityjunction.com.