Take a listen to a bootleg recording of an early Single Malt Band show and you might be struck by the vast divide between the level of applause when band members take the stage and when they make their exit. Perhaps many people still haven’t heard the Single Malt Band. Or, perhaps the entire bluegrass-meets-jam-band genre is getting too big for its britches. Either way, the Single Malt Band is not typically greeted by the screaming arena-rock fans that you might find at, say, a Phish show. But by the time these guys finish playing their heart out, they’ve won the crowd over, and the crowd lets ‘em know it.
Based in Boulder, Colo., Single Malt Band has been gaining momentum and a steady following. SMB’s primary instrumentation is acoustic guitar/fiddle/acoustic bass, along with some pretty nifty harmonies. However, while vocalists Jefferson Hamer and Jordan Moretti focus primarily on guitar and fiddle, respectively, they can also break out the tenor banjo and mandolin to keep things fresh. Plus, they have an uncanny ability to draw special guests onstage. Tony Furtado joined Single Malt Band on its debut studio release for additional banjo work.
The number one complaint you’ll hear from bluegrass critics is, “The bands all sound the same.” Some might answer as Neil Young did and claim, “It’s all one song,” but that’s not the case with Single Malt Band. While this trio offers some fine covers of traditional bluegrass songs, its strong point are its originals. There’s the feeling with Single Malt Band that if the people of New Orleans and Ireland got together to get drunk and party, this would be the musical accompaniment. A tune like “Coffee and a Cigarette” emanates a whimsical, almost Beatles-esque vibe amongst the backdrop of Dixie-grass and the sound of a nonexistent oboe (but it’s there, somehow).
Then there’s the bittersweet, swaying anthem like “Damned Occupation.” Sung to the tune of a heartbreaking fiddle, the lyrics are genuine: “I’ve been trying to quit smoking/But smoke’s all I’ve got, when slow ticks the clock/My routine is killing me slowly.” This melancholy lullaby for a hard worker is a fine example of Single Malt Band’s lyrical power. They write complex music for simple songs of life, and the juxtaposition pays musical dividends. There’s a definite pleasure in being able to understand what a song is about on first listen. Sure, it can be fun to break out the secret decoder ring with indie bands from time to time, but bluegrass has always been about telling a simple story, and SMB wisely follows this tradition. And there’s something for the jam-banders out there, too. Songs like “Tractorface” are jumpy and strummy, great dance numbers that you can only imagine add up to more than the sum of their parts in concert. But, unlike so much jam music, Single Malt isn’t tempted into easy-way-out songwriting: that is, nonsense lyrics. Instead, while “Tractorface” takes us on a musical ride, it also ponders the implications of the over-prescription of Prozac and other mood-elevating drugs: “I can’t pay attention/They gave me some medicine/It’s for the best, so they say.”
Most of all, Single Malt Band plays songs that will be in your head the next time you go for a hike. Much of their music comes on to you slowly, tickling your senses like a cool summer stream. And even when the lyrics are laced with painfully honest self-realization, the sweet bluegrass chords have the power to make us feel that there is no sorrow without a touch of joy, and vice versa.
Single Malt Band plays the Top Hat Friday, Aug. 16 at 10:30 PM. cover TBA. Also: Portland-based world-music omnibus Brothers of the Baladi will perform from 7 to 10:30 PM, so come early!