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Front Country

The Greystones, Sheffield
Sunday 28 August 2016

The Greystones has hosted a wide and varied series of musical events over the last few years, a multitude of genres from Alt Country to Alt Rock, Folk to Flamenco, R&B to Reggae, but there's always something exciting about a visit by a major Bluegrass band and tonight saw the appearance of one of the finest. Based around the San Francisco Mission District, Front Country has developed into a major touring quintet with one album SAKE OF THE SOUND under their belt together with the band's latest release MIXTAPE, a brand new EP of covers which is now available at their concerts.

It was almost two years ago that I first hear Front Country when their debut album arrived for review and I was immediately struck by their musical cohesion, all of which was confirmed tonight at the popular Sheffield venue. Once again hosted by True North Music, whose Maria Wallace introduced both Front Country and tonight's opening act. For some, Sunday nights are often marred with the prospect of impending work in the morning but tonight the Bank Holiday weekend brought with it an additional sense of joy as the audience arrived and settled in for what promised to be a great night.

The single microphone in the centre of an otherwise deserted stage; save for a couple of guitars and a reclining double bass, suggested we were definitely in for a good night. Introduced as old friends, the Cheshire-based trio Rye Distraction were at the Greystones to play their debut performance anywhere; exciting for tonight's audience for sure but also a scary prospect for Eleanor Wilkie on fiddle, Eleanor's sister Emily Cross on double bass and lead vocalist James Dewdney on guitar. As their initial nervousness settled into enjoyment, the trio huddled around the centre microphone and revealed a bunch of songs they had been working on, the trio's strength lying particularly in the interplay between the fiddle and guitar, but also in the lush sibling harmonies. Emily's bass playing drove the sound along throughout the band's opening set.

For their first visit to Sheffield, Front Country were determined to make a meaningful first impression with their collective musical credentials and collaborative cohesion, all of which soon became very much apparent. With Adam (Roscoe) Roszkiewicz's mandolin pyrotechnics, Jake Groopman's flat-pick guitar wizardry, Leif Karlstrom's blazing fiddle and Jeremy Darrow's rhythmic double bass keeping it all together. It was Melody Walker's superb soulful voice that kept our attention throughout both sets.

Testament to such a standard of musicianship, it soon became apparent that these fine musicians don't sit around listening to Bluegrass all day and are fearless in their pursuit of interpreting their own eclectic influences, some of which are quite surprising. King Crimson for instance. During his introduction, Jake was eager to point out that the song was from "the eighties King Crimson of course" lest anyone in the audience was preparing for a stroll through 21st Century Schizoid Man for instance, or the full thirteen minutes of Lark's Tongues in Aspic Part One, heaven forbid. The complex rhythms and delicate syncopation of Three of a Perfect Pair, featuring Leif's manic fiddle onslaught was one of the highlights of the night.

For anyone familiar with the band's debut album, a handful of the songs were selected for the set list, the soul-filled Gospel Train for instance, and the equally impassioned Rock Salt and Nails together with the title song Sake of the Sound, each of which were handled with the care the songs deserved. Speaking of the sake of the sound, the crew at the Greystones were once again very much on the ball, springing into action once a faulty microphone came to their attention and maintaining a high standard throughout.

It's always good to see a band that takes the concept of a band seriously, by definition each and every member has an important part to play, each member being just as important as the musician standing next to them and Front Country demonstrates this with every single note. The songs are superb as are the instrumentals, which are remarkably inventive and adventurous, each played with extraordinary dexterity, The Humpback and the Sloth for instance and also Light's Out, for which Melody left the guys to it, leaving the stage in order to tune her banjo.

With one or two further surprises, The Band's Get Up Jake first heard on the Rock of Ages live record back in the early 1970s and Don Henley's Boys of Summer, which stirred more recent memories for some. If the audience had any notion that this memorable Don Henley song couldn't be followed, they were fantastically mistaken as the band launched into Melody Walker's showstopper par excellence, the powerhouse that is Gold Rush Goddess, which featured some of the most exciting solos from each member of the band, notably Jake's flat-pick guitar showpiece and Roscoe and Leif's plucked fiddle and mandolin flurry towards the end. Breathtaking really.

Concluding with the one encore, for which the audience were asked to join in, the band left the Greystones with Family Band, a good old sing-along to end what turned out to be quite an extraordinary night.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky