Bluegrass is a genre that seems to find its way into a variety of listeners' collections, from folkies to rockers. I'm no exception - I've always felt that when the air gets crisp and apples are ready for picking, there's nothing like hearing a little pickin'.
But I'm not sure The Powder Kegs' debut, The Seedhouse, will be the soundtrack to any of my drives to the orchard next fall. The band - originally from Poughkeepsie, New York - brought its energetic take on bluegrass to local clubs last summer, quickly gaining attention. What can be summoned onstage isn't always captured in the studio, however, and much of their debut sounds like second-generation Phish disciples running backwards to catch the O Brother bandwagon.
The group's lineup conforms to that of a conventional bluegrass outfit, albeit with the addition of harmonica. Things kick off with a spirited take on Woody Guthrie's "Hard Travelin'." Yet you only need to listen for about 30 seconds before the album's chief flaw is revealed: These guys aren't the most proficient instrumentalists. In other words, there's a whole lot of strumming and not much picking. Fortunately, fiddle player Sam McDougle salvages the song with his dexterous fills.
TPK tackle traditional songs such as "Cumberland Gap," "Policeman," and "John Brown's Dream," employing a similarly insipid formula - upbeat tempo, limited chords and vocals that range from pleasant to awkward.
The lone original, "Take Another Shot (at Me)," isn't much of an improvement. What was likely intended to be a show-stopping dobro solo is loosed partway through. Unfortunately, it reminded me less of Jerry Douglas and more of a kid who stumbles upon an instrument in his attic and spends a week working out something to play for his friends.
When the band slows things down, as they do on reinterpretations of both Hank Williams' "Lonesome Whistle" and The Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers," they display a sincerity lacking in the faster numbers. In addition, the well-executed vocal harmonies prove there's some potential here.
The jam community will invariably eat this stuff up because it's "fun" and you can dance to it. How true-blue 'grassheads will respond remains to be seen. At the moment, The Powder Kegs lack the technical prowess and creativity of other regional acts such as Breakaway or Banjo Dan. But with continued practice and the addition of a few more originals, their Seedhouse might bear fruit.