d NewFound Road at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center Old Saybrook, CT July 1, 2011
NewFound Road is exploring new paths away from the straight-ahead bluegrass that has been their calling card for the past ten years. Their latest album, a live set called Live At The Down Home, which came out in April on Rounder Records, shows the new routes they’re taking toward a wider appeal and band members' tastes. Making their third visit to the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook – known to locals as simply The Kate – NewFound Road showed they're heading in new directions, just like their name implies.
Their July 1 concert, like the new album, departed substantially at times from their traditional bluegrass offerings to include some fresh originals, risk-taking covers of Bill Withers (Ain’t No Sunshine), Dave Loggins (Please Come To Boston), Jackson Brown (These Days) and John Mayer (Gravity) along with some rockin’ blues played on electric instruments with percussion, something of a no-no in the world of traditional bluegrass.
These new variations were welcomed by the big crowd at The Kate who embraced the forays into other sounds while still enjoying the traditional, acoustic stringed music.
NewFound Road's Tim Shelton (Kim Matarese / Europa Photography photo)
The new sounds are “a bit of a departure musically from what we’ve always done in the past and that was intentional,” acknowledged guitarist and lead vocalist Tim Shelton, the last remaining original member of the band, in an interview with Connecticut Concerts a few days before the show.“It’s who we are now, musically.It is the direction we’re heading.We’re certainly not going to depart from bluegrass, but we do like other kinds of music, we’re influenced by other kinds of music, we create other styles of music.But we still love doing traditional bluegrass, it’s who we are.We’re a band that can do a number of different things.It’s a lot of fun to incorporate all of this.And I think it includes a lot more people because we don’t just play traditional bluegrass festivals any more,” typified by their appearance at the Kate and at the New Bedford (Mass.) Summerfest Folk Festival on the weekend following.“Those venues allow us to stretch out a bit, musically.”
Traditional bluegrass is how they started their first of two sets at The Kate, but they sure came out swingin’ with the feisty We Ain’t Goin’ Down Without A Fight.They kept the energy high for the first two songs before slowing it down with Room At The Top Of The Stairs, a song from the live CD.Shelton joked about the dark nature of some of their songs, saying the next tune would be “lonesome and pitiful and depressing,” but the compelling Lonesome River featured haunting vocal harmonies and Josh Miller’s bluesy banjo solo.
Shelton introduced the group:Miller has been with him three years now, mandolinplayer Joe Booher for five and Joe’s brother, Jamie, has been on bass for three years.He needled Miller about his propensity to get dancing and to shake his noggin “like a bobblehead” when they start to jam and so Miller shook his behind a little.“It’s really hard to watch this,” groaned Joe.Next up was Middle Aged Crazy, a straight-up country tune featuring Shelton’s strong, rich voice that’s mature and radio-friendly.As much as the musicianship in NewFound Road is outstanding, it’s Shelton’s vocals that are the money.
At times in the show, Josh Miller traded his banjo for electric guitar, Jamie Booher played bass guitar and Joe Booher kept rhythm on the cajon (Kim Matarese / Europa Photography photo)
“We’re known for angry bluegrass tunes but we do have some romantic songs, even though this one is sad and depressing, too,” Shelton quipped by way of introducing You’ll Pretend.They have what could be a sure-fire hit in their cover of Dave Loggins’ Please Come To Boston, a more rugged and rhythmic version than Loggins’, with a real, honest country appeal and a nice, walking bass line.Miller played a pretty solo on banjo and so did Booher on mandolin.
They went more rock for the next one, Jackson Browne’s These Days.“He wrote this when he was sixteen years old,” Shelton said, shaking his head.“I was playin' basketball when I was sixteen, that’s all I knew how to do.”Miller put down the banjo and rocked an electric guitar and Jamie Booher switched from standup bass to bass guitar.
Joe Booher brought out a cajon (the Spanish word for “box” which is basically what it is – a precision-made, acoustically-sound wooden box that’s played with the hands like a conga with the player sitting atop it) to complete the band’s radical change from traditional bluegrass for a cover of John Mayer’s Gravity that featured a fuzzed-out, distorted guitar lead from Miller.
The guitarist took over lead vocals on an original rocker, Bethany, showing off a fine voice and he was banging his head just like Shelton said he would.“Josh is a happy guy but, gosh, he writes angry music,” Shelton said, teasing his bandmate.
Following a short intermission, NewFound Road led off the second set with their traditional instruments again and the very traditional bluegrass-sounding Try To Be followed by some fast pickin’ on both the banjo and mandolin on Foggy Mountain Breakdown.It don’t get any more bluegrass than that and they were real crowd-pleasers.They ventured back into the Nashville style again with the Freddy Fender classic, Before The Next Teardrop Falls, sounding even more country than the original (if that's possible), and Shelton’s voice carried the tune far better than Fender ever did.
With another straight-up country song, The Back Row, Shelton solidified this writer’s opinion that he might be one of the best country singers out there today.Yet he's willing to let the spotlight shine on the other band members, as he did with another original from Josh Miller – “another one of his killin’ songs!We don’t condone, murder, we really don’t!” he joked.Blackadder’s Cove is a chilling tale and a place where, it seems, the cheating lover’s body was deposited.Yikes.
(Kim Matarese / Europa Photography photos)
(Kim Matarese / Europa Photography photo)
Although he had numerous solos during the evening, Joe Booher got a chance to cut loose on a solo that served as intro to Houston in which he showed his mastery of the instrument, playing an amplified lead with a delay effect that gave it a twin-instrument sound and supplemented it with his own percussion on the instrument’s body.He ripped another solo effort before the next song, revving it up with an audience clap-along then showing off his lightning-fast fingering before totally rocking it out, even playing from his knees at one point, like a mandolin-playing Pete Townsend.
That led into the final number, NewFound Road’s new version of the Bill Withers classic, Ain’t No Sunshine, beefed up from the original with Booher’s percussive rhythm on the mandolin and solos from him and Miller on electric.
The supportive crowd definitely seemed to love all the phases of NewFound Road – the traditional bluegrass, the country and the electric blues – and begged for an encore, to which the band obliged, offering the banjo-driven Little Maggie and the standard Willie Brown Blues with the band back on the electric strings and Booher on cajon.
Shelton told us that the band’s compelling new directions are like what some other bluegrass players have been doing.“You listen to guys like Sam Bush or Jerry Douglas or Alison Kraus and Union Station, who have certainly led the way in acoustic music, when they do bluegrass, it’s certainly bluegrass, but they’re capable of doing anything they want musically.That’s influenced us, to a degree."
The modest Shelton likes to deflect praise onto his bandmates, like mandolin player Joe Booher, who compliments Shelton’s stay-at-home stage presence by roaming the stage like a feral cat.“His approach to the instrument is more like that of a rock guitar player than it is Bill Monroe,” Shelton offered.“While he knows the Monroe stuff, it’s more of his own style, more of an intense, almost rock-like attitude with the instrument.It’s a lot of fun.”
NewFound Road’s present direction shouldn’t be surprising, given that Tim’s musical influences growing up were so eclectic.At home, his parents “played everything from Elvis to the Beatles to Aerosmith and Zeppelin.Early on, I was a big Kiss fan!And I still am, that’s my guilty pleasure!But lately, I’ve been really drawn to guys like Jackson Browne, James Taylor and other singer/songwriters from that era.Elton John’s early stuff.And newer stuff, like Amos Lee and John Mayer.It’s all over the gamut with me.I love classic country, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, Johnny Cash, George Jones and those cool, great artists from back in the day.Bluegrass stuff like Tommy Rice, Flatt & Scruggs, and Ralph Stanley, I’m influenced by all of that.”
Tim Shelton met with us after the show (Kim Matarese / Europa Photography photo)
Special thanks to Kim Matarese and EUROPA PHOTOGRAPHY for contributing these feature photos.