Why do you suppose it is that mountain music the world over seems to have so much in common from place to place? It tends to be quick and nimbly picked, with rapid changes and it draws on a common language of natural and romantic themes, often with a dash of tragic fatalism. Does this somehow reflect the unpredictability and austerity of life at high altitudes, like they have to get these songs played and get them played quick before a sudden squall blows in? Is there some kind of universal resonance to (pardon, I’m borrowing here) a crest like a frosted bosom, white as goat’s milk, that gives everyone the same kind of mountain fever?
It seems like it should be just the opposite. Rivers unite—lengthwise, anyway—but mountains just divide. Technology and languages evolve differently. Species evolve differently. A group of pocket gophers wanders over the mountains and next thing you know they’ve got fins and flippers.
It’s interesting to see how bluegrass is developing in Colorado—or just ‘Rado, as seems to be the preferred form of address, what with these terse mountainous types too busy collecting firewood and putting by whortleberries to say “Leftover Salmon” or “Runaway Truck Ramp,” settling for affectionate mentions of “Leftover” and “Runaway” instead. Tucked away in those draws and drainages, the players are now talking about “newgrass,” the proverbial mountain pocket gopher, hard-wired in bluegrass but informed by jazz and especially funk, for which Boulder has never come up wanting. I imagine grizzled mandolin players ambling into town and trading beaver hides and bags of gold dust straight across for old funk records, wearing them thin during long winters spent staving off cabin fever by shooting teacups off each others’ heads. And practicing, practicing, practicing. There is something terrible about mountains.
With the spring runoff comes a new crop of bands, stewed in the juice of repeated and obsessive record-listenings and slightly mutated and ornery from the isolation. Bands with more chops than Sam the Butcher grafting the sounds of Appalachia onto the Rockies. Bands like Boulder’s Floodplain Gang, currently at the top of their game and leading the newgrass revolution out of its mountain stronghold.
The Floodplain Gang has been around for less than five years, but they’ve already made a name for themselves in Colorado and beyond opening for top regional and national acts like Tony Furtado and the String Cheese Incident. And, of course, they’re pretty tight with Missoula’s Cold Mountain Rhythm Band, which gives them a smiley-face sticker sound unheard.
But hearing is believing, and the proof is in Floodplain Gang’s debut CD, 1998’s Blind Ride. Listen to those spaghetti mandolin runs and hushed harmonies. Some tracks feature a full, warm brass sound, others dobro and bouzouki. The CD is split fairly evenly between straight-up bluegrass and tracks that cop to funk and soul influences, but none of it comes across as calculatedly or purposefully eclectic. Everything dovetails with no seams showing and the results are thrilling, heterogeneous in the line of duty.
I’m born again hard for the Floodplain Gang. Lord, play me that mountain music.
See the Floodplain Gang at the Ritz, this Saturday, Feb. 12 at 10 p.m. Tickets $5.