Saturday, June 28, 2014

Notre Dame de Grass – That’s How the Music Begins

That’s How the Music Begins

In my Montreal Gazette review of their first album, New Canada Road, in 2007, I wrote, “Notre Dame de Grass may well be the finest pure-bluegrass outfit to come out of Montreal in decades. In bandleader Matthew Large they’ve got a solid singer, guitarist and songwriter who understands and respects the bluegrass traditions and knows how to create a unique sound while playing within the genre’s rules.”

Seven years down the bluegrass road, Notre Dame de Grass is a somewhat different band, but there’s really no doubt that the version of the band that has gelled over the years since that first album is, indeed, the finest pure-bluegrass band to have ever come out of Montreal – and certainly one of the finest to have ever come out of all of Canada.

Matt Large is still leading Notre Dame de Grass and Belgian-born banjo player Guy Donis, one of the finest purveyors of the Bill Keith-influenced melodic banjo style, is still adding his fine playing to the band's sound and some great instrumentals to the repertoire, but the other three musicians – bassist and singer Andrew Horton, mandolinist Joe Grass and fiddler Josh Zubot – all joined the band since the last album was recorded and have each contributed to making it an even stronger unit.

That’s How the Music Begins is a textbook example of everything a traditional bluegrass fan would want in an album. There’s some excellent original material, some traditional standards, some outstanding instrumentals, and some gospel, all played and sung within the standard bluegrass instrumentation and vocal styles defined by Bill Monroe and other first-generation bluegrassers like the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs.

While there are lots of contemporary bluegrass bands who are technically great, Notre Dame de Grass is part of a relatively rarer number of bands with both a unique character and a superior repertoire.

Matt is a fine bluegrass songwriter and contributes such songs as the title track, a driving number about the joys of getting the musicians together to play, and “Edmunston Nights,” a reflection on escaping small town life.

But the absolute highlight of the album, and one of the finest new bluegrass songs I’ve heard in years is Matt’s “New Canada,” a homage to the waves of immigration that have continued to make Canada the interesting, multicultural country it has developed into over the years.

Other highlights include “Mount Royal Backstep” and “St. Jean Express,” two fine banjo-driven instrumentals written by Guy, and a haunting version of “Satan’s Jewel Crown,” one of several songs featuring fine lead vocals by Andrew.

Another definite highlight is Matt’s powerful, album-ending, solo version of the traditional folksong, “Cowboy’s Life is a Dreary Life,” that he sings in a pure, traditional a cappella style.

Hopefully, it won’t be seven years until the next Notre Dame de Grass album.

Pictured: Notre Dame de Grass at the Montreal Folk Festival on the Canal, June 21, 2014 (Photo: Mike Regenstreif)

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--Mike Regenstreif

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