To some, the term “Boston Bluegrass” may seem to be a malaprop, a suggestion that tradition must get lost on the byzantine cityscape of the Northeast city, far away from mountain hollers and high meadows. But, as Mile 12 demonstrates, Boston bluegrass music is alive and well, arguably driving modern bluegrass music, and certainly contributing rich threads to its texture.
Mile 12 is the latest and most likely not the last to spring from the melting pot of traditional music fostered at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, The New England Conservatory and countless coffee houses and other entertainment venues. Like The Lonely Heartstring Band, Sierra Hull, Courtney Hartman, Sarah Jarosz, to name a notable few, these players found their voice in Boston performance studios and have taken it on the road to a larger audience. Not forgotten are the simple, but estimable, accomplishments of Boston forbears, dating back to the Lilly Brothers, Joe Val, and continuing through Tony Trischka, Bruce Molsky, Tony Watt, Joe K. Walsh and many others.
“Onwards”, Mile 12’s new release, comes on the heels of the band’s 2017 IBMA Momentum Award, which singles out new emerging artists for recognition. “Onwards” fulfills that promise and demonstrates the band’s skill and craftsmanship. The title cut, with key and tempo changes, displays the band’s appetite for musical styles and sounds whilst still adopting a bluegrass sensibility. Mile 12 shows strong songwriting skills and straight ahead musicianship.
Each of the band’s five members has moments to shine. New Zealander Catherine (BB) Bowness plays the banjo with controlled abandon. Her runs are bright and her background picking lends texture and depth to the songs (“notably on “Call My Soul”). Bronwyn Keith‐Hynes plays a smooth fiddle, and David Benedict, on mandolin has many complementary licks and stands out on the instrumental tunes.
Most of the band are Northeast transplants; the band name itself comes from a sign marker on I-93 which denotes that Boston is within reach. Evan Murphy, vocalist and guitarist, takes the lead on “Onwards” and his subjects range from growing up Catholic in Boston (“Soul”), seafaring (“The Margaret Keene”) and even the pathos of a monument in New York City (“Soldiers and Sailors”). Not many bluegrass songs name-drop Riverside Drive, but “Soldiers and Sailors” is a standout cut. An instrumental, “Wickwire” shows the band’s collaborative energy as the players trade licks here and there. Bassist Nate Sabat, who lays down a solid line throughout the record, breaks out his bow on “Wickwire, joining in the fun.
Stephen Mougin, guitarist in The Sam Bush Band, produced the collection, and his clarity of purpose shows through; Mile 12 is a band of ambition and talent, which leads them and the listener onwards.