Great Northern came to my attention through their stellar instrumentals — heard one day on the CBC radio, causing me to beg our benevolent editor, Cat, to write away for their album. I absolutely love the way that the cello adds depth to their instrumental numbers, and can recommend this disc on the strength of the instrumentals alone. I’m less enthused about the lead vocalists, although I love the mournful group vocals that are a bluegrass hallmark. Great Northern are Paul Bergman on bass, Tim Eccles on guitar and lead vocals, Craig McGregor on mandolin and guitar, Iain MacIntyre on banjo, Brian Samuels on 5 string cello, and Doug Thordarson on 5 string viola and lead vocals. The band hail from British Columbia on Canada’s west coast — mountains yes, but very different from the hardscrabble Appalachian region. I’m not sure if their name refers to being north of the 48th parallel, or to the railroad, but no matter, the important thing is that this ensemble works. As the liner notes say, “A cello is just a great big fiddle anyhow…”
The songs on Low Lonesome mine the traditional themes of bluegrass: cheating hearts and the vagaries of love, working in the trades, all the usual territory. It’s not that either Eccles or Thordarson mangle a song — they absolutely don’t, but their singing is just not quite up to the instrumentals. Of course, regular readers will know that this reviewer is persnickety about vocalists, and I freely admit that I get even worse when it comes to the unstudied style of singing in this genre. Several of the songs have nice hooks, like the opening track, “Crazy Heart,” and “Just One Time,” which has some dandy instrumental passages tucked into verses bemoaning the singer’s pleading. Actually this is true of several tracks, where I hoped the singers would pause a bit longer, so that I could listen to the gorgeous instrumentals. Two exceptions are the final two tracks, “Hold What You’ve Got” and “Walkin’ the Dog” which are both upbeat numbers well suited to Eccles voice; both are infectious and flowing. I suspect they are crowd pleasers during the live show, they certainly work well on the album.
The instrumental that originally caught my ear is entitled the “Temperance Reel,” a song I’ve heard before but not like this — these lads have a sense for arrangement that really makes this tune, particularly in the interplay between the cello and the bass, underneath the various instruments carrying the melody. When I heard it, I felt as if something missing from bluegrass had been found — something no one knew was missing until now. It’s 3:27 minutes of pure pleasure. Another stellar contribution is “Katie on the Jumperoo.” The addition of the cello gives the music such a lush, dark sound — truly remarkable.
I world really like to hear more from Great Northern, and I’m hoping they develop this unique ensemble can recommend this disc for the instrumentals, which should appeal to people who demand more from their speakers and their musical traditions. If you like bluegrass harmonies and back porch style singing, you’ll also like the songs.
(Great Big Tater, 1999)