Chester River Runoff
Blue Heron Farm (Crumptone)
This Chestertown-based bluegrass band plays with a frayed edge that contrasts favorably with the lightning fast precision that’s often associated with the genre. Although the disc opens a bit too unsteadily—“Where the Speed Limit Changes” has one or two syllables too many at the end of some lines—it settles into territory somewhere between the Stoneman Family and Blue Mountain. Nate Grower’s fiddle dances around Sam Guthridge’s ambling banjo, harmonies swoop and dip, and these well-worn tunes feel like they were recorded in someone’s living room, which they were.
Crack the Sky
Machine (Aluminum Cat Recordings)
Last year’s All Access live DVD reminded fans why Crack the Sky attained “rock god” status around here in the 1970s/early 1980s. Culled from a pair of 2008 reunion concerts, it featured a generous selection of rousing and ambitious pieces from the band’s heyday—including stellar versions of “Nuclear Apathy,” “Ice,” “Surf City,” and “She’s a Dancer.” Such tunes wed rock dynamics to orchestral buoyancy, a combination that plays nicely against John Palumbo’s wry lyrics. Because a core of original CTS members had been playing together over the past few years (joined by guitarist Bobby Hird and keyboard whiz Glenn Workman), my expectations were high that this release would be a return to past glory. It isn’t—but that’s not necessarily bad news, because it opens up new possibilities for the band. Right away, “Overture” sets an intriguingly atmospheric mood that segues into acoustic strumming and Palumbo’s brooding vocals on “Heaven.” It’s gorgeous, until a generic electric guitar solo breaks the spell and spoils the mood. It’s a shame because the next song, “Come Out,” is a heady, understated gem that nods toward the first two tracks as it swells toward psychedelic bliss. At such moments, Crack the Sky sounds like a working band again, a sum greater than its parts—rather than talented guys scrolling through default settings. Maybe next time around they’ll focus more on inhabiting their music rather than simply playing it.
Crack the Sky plays an all ages show at the Recher Theatre on November 27.
The Marsalis Family
Music Redeems (Marsalis Music)
It’s gotta be hard for the Marsalis kid who doesn’t play jazz, but here, Baltimore’s Ellis Marsalis III steals the show with a poem. Recorded at a Kennedy Center concert last year, the disc features Wynton, Branford, and crew playing tunes by Monk and Charlie Parker. That’s to be expected. But the real revelation is the inclusion of Ellis III’s “The Man and the Ocean,” a thoughtful and perceptive piece written for his father, patriarch of the jazz (and maybe one day poetry) dynasty.