CRESCENT and FROST with Po' Girl at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson), tonight (Thursday, July 21). $15. 416-508-1605. Also playing as part of the Hillside Festival on Guelph Lake Island, Guelph, Sunday (July 24), 2 pm, $60 (sold out). www.hillside.on.ca.
When people think of Brooklyn, they think of Spike Lee, the Beastie Boys and the Dodgers. Associating the famed borough with bluegrass music is as unlikely as a game at Ebbets Field, but if Crescent and Frost have their way, it might just become the next hotbed of Americana music.
Some serious questions need to be answered first - like what the hell is a young, hip duo doing playing bluegrass music in, of all places, Brooklyn?
"Well, I'm from Pittsburgh," Daniel Marcus offers coyly, as if that makes it all clear. "Maryann was born in Brooklyn but raised in Pittsburgh, and New York seemed like a good place to call home."
Maryann Fennimore is the lead singer-lyricist half of this dynamic duo, while Marcus picks away on the six-string and writes all the music. But I'm still looking for an answer to my first question.
"Well, Pittsburgh is a real classic rock town, so I was into Zeppelin and all that stuff growing up, which I still like. It was the folksy-acoustic Neil Young songs that got me into this type of music, although at the time I didn't listen to bluegrass, just rock guys playing in that style. I studied jazz in university and for a time thought that was the route I'd take, but after jamming with some people who were playing bluegrass, I was hooked."
After corralling Fennimore, a design school grad and freelance illustrator, the most unlikely of roots combos was born.
While they don't have the backwoods cred of players from, say, the Smoky Mountains, their city smarts have translated into one of the most sophisticated and contemporary bluegrass bands around. Fennimore has a keen sense of humour and writes about real life from the perspective of a real woman. So if you're looking for the traditional "my crops are dust, my hubby's drunk" banter, look elsewhere.
Maybe it's their affection for the singer/songwriter types like Joni Mitchell that makes it hard to pin them down as bluegrass artists. On their latest disc, Open Doors, there is a definite shift toward poppy, radio-friendly tunes that, with any luck, may find them eclipsing Alison Krauss and the Be Good Tanyas.
Yet when you realize that the album features legendary banjoist Bill "Brad" Keith, formerly in the trailblazing Bill Monroe group, it's clear Crescent and Frost are still years away from doing Dixie Chicks covers.
"I'm not one to worry about the genre thing, but there is a real need for people to categorize music, and I think we're called a bluegrass band for lack of a better word. For us, it's not a conscious decision to be bluegrass per se, it's just that it is what it is. You're a writer - how about coming up with a name for it?"
Granted, "Americana," "traditional," "roots" and "old-time" all sound like something you were forced to learn about from some blue-haired bespectacled music theory teacher. How about "cosmo-country"?
On Open Doors, Bill "Brad" Keith makes a guest appearance on banjo. He played with Bill Monroe, who's not called "the father of bluegrass" for nothing. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs cut their teeth with Monroe, who wrote the classic Blue Moon Of Kentucky, which made some guy called Presley pretty famous.
Monroe pioneered what we today call bluegrass by breaking away from traditional chord changes and experimenting with open tunings, somehow making it still sound familiar. That, in a nutshell, is what Crescent and Frost are doing, too.
"Wow, I never even thought about it that way," says Marcus, sounding as if he truly wished he had. "It was a real honour having him play with us, and he was such a sweet man. I actually met him in California and was lucky enough to get to spend a weekend with him, and when I contacted him for this album, he was more than happy to join in.
"He made us all feel at ease, and best of all, he played for scale!"