The Upshot: Hey-ho, let’s go – hear some bluegrass, that is, from Sid Griffin (Long Ryders) and his British compatriots, serving up everything from traditionally-styled twang to a left-field power pop cover to a pointedly non-traditional tribute.
BY FRED MILLS
Quick, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone says “bluegrass”? If you answered “the Ramones” you’re lyin’ through yer teeth, bub. In the case of England’s Coal Porters, however, the ‘grass/‘mones intersection is as sharp a fit as those tailored suits they sport when performing onstage.
For album No. 6, the group—Sid Griffin (mandolin), Paul Fitzgerald (banjo), Neil Robert Herd (guitar), Andrew Stafford (bass), Kerenza Peacock (fiddle); all of them sing, of course, and each player picks up at least one other instrument over the course of the record—opts to lead off with “The Day the Last Ramone Died,” which as you might surmise is a musical memorial to Joey, Johnny, DeeDee, and Tommy. In the song, Griffin reflects upon the first time he saw the Ramones perform, in the late ‘70s in L.A., which of course is where he would also eventually form proto-Americana rockers the Long Ryders:
“Tickets in hand, we went to see this band
Not knowing our lives would soon change…
Gabba gabba hey, 1-2-3-4 they did say
DeeDee, Johnny, and Joey
Are taking our blues away
Now we’ve lost Tommy
So listen to a song where we all cried
I put on my old leather jacket
The day the last Ramone died.”
Didn’t we all, Sid, didn’t we all. At any rate, the number’s as tuneful as it’s heartfelt, smartly arranged for the five primary bluegrass instruments, with the mandolin and fiddle in particular riffing in tandem on the verses as if transcribing an actual Ramones arrangement. And make no mistake: This isn’t one of those schlocky/gimmicky Pickin’ On… bluegrass tributes, although it certainly might cause the old-timers to raise an eyebrow or two when the song rolls around to the chorus and Griffin invokes the name “Ramones” instead of Watson or Monroe. It’s still proof, though, that genuinely good, expressive music is imbued with a commonality that will always transcend genre, purists be damned.
Highlights abound elsewhere on the record, which was produced by John Wood, of Fairport Convention/Nick Drake/Beth Orton renown. There’s Herd’s upbeat “The Old Style Prison Break,” which conjures images of a vintage western’s montage, what with the good guys and black-hatted ones flickering through the lyrics like sepia-toned clips from a pre-talkie film. The sunny “Save Me From the Storm,” also by Herd, has a swing ‘n’ sway to it that’s downright righteous, the bandmembers all crowding around the mic to chant the titular phrase on the choruses. And Griffin’s “Salad Days,” another remembrance (this one about the initial career arc of the Long Ryders, with mentions of John Peel, Roger McGuinn, and record deals), is simultaneously rocking and reverent, a bit of down ‘n’ dirty and high ‘n’ lonesome all at once. There’s also a fiery instrumental titled “Chopping the Garlic” and penned by Peacock, who steers the gentlemen through the changes and their solos like a seasoned bandleader thrice her age.
Now, while the Porters are deeply in love with bluegrass and can lay claim to being the best and most authentic bluegrass band in the UK, they clearly don’t mind throwing out a curveball or two—as if the Ramones homage isn’t tipoff enough, and longtime fans know of the group’s penchant for left-field grassified covers, such as Edwin Starr’s “War,” Bowie’s “Heroes,” the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” and the Stones’ “Paint It Black”—and they accordingly save their big surprise for last. As track number 10 cues up and the intro unspools, the dim flicker of recognition starts to kick in: Peacock spirals upward, bowing a sweet melody that seems uncannily familiar, then Herd eases into the lyric: “I always flirt with death/ I look ill but I don’t care about it…”
Yes, it’s that kind of holy shit moment when you realize they are doing the Only Ones’ eternal classic “Another Girl, Another Planet,” famously covered by the Replacements and not-so-famously covered over the years by scores of punk and pop bands. Here, the high-energy power pop gem gets slowed down to a kind of jaunty midtempo as it celebrates the giddy joys of youthful infatuation, and you simply cannot resist the urge to sing along with the band. (Loudly, at that—just ask the folks who were in the car beside me at the stoplight earlier today.) [Below: watch the band do the song live at a 2014 show in Wales.]
Bottom line: You won’t be able to resist this delightful album’s charms, either. Don’t even try. Gabba gabba hey.
DOWNLOAD: “Salad Days,” “Save Me From the Storm,” “Another Girl, Another Planet,” “The Day the Last Ramone Died”