The Foggy Hogtown Boys CD release party at the Silver Dollar (486 Spadina), Friday (July 2). $8, with CD $20. 416-763-9139. Rating: NNNNN
Anyone dropping by the Silver Dollar for the Crazy Strings' High Lonesome Wednesdays jam session knows there's no shortage of bluegrass-inspired pickers in town. Yet genuine bluegrass bands playing music that Earl Scruggs could recognize as the sound he pioneered with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys have always been a rare commodity in Toronto.
Crazy Strings pals Chris Coole, Andrew Collins and Chris Quinn recognized that fact and decided to form yet another side project, the Foggy Hogtown Boys, to play the more traditional style of music they dearly love. They were joined by ace fiddler John Showman and Wednesday-night walk-on singer/bassist John McNaughton.
But the serious chops of the players involved quickly transformed their just-for-kicks roots getaways into something special and unique, as can be heard on their dazzling debut disc, Live At The Dominion.
However traditional the original concept may have been, the Foggy Hogtown Boys are not the old-timey throwback that the group's whimsical handle and public-domain-heavy repertoire suggest. The way they pick runs, phrase lyrics and interact harmonically has clearly been influenced by the past 50 years of bluegrass evolution and the cultural reality of living in a cosmopolitan Canadian metropolis.
"Co-hosting a weekly bluegrass radio program with my sister Angel," explains McNaughton, whose Tuesday-night broadcast on Six Nations radio CKRZ 100.3 FM has earned them the Central Canadian Bluegrass Award four years running, "I'm constantly exposed to the latest bluegrass recordings, and I'm always travelling around to festivals to hear new Canadian artists. So far I haven't come across any other band that sounds like the Foggy Hogtown Boys.
"In the last year we've really developed a distinct sound. It's not like anything from the East Coast and not really like what's coming out of the U.S. I like to think of it as a Toronto bluegrass sound."
Along with Showman's swooping fiddle turns and the rhythmic drive created by Quinn's banjo and Collins's mandolin interplay, the defining feature of the Foggy Hogtown Boys is McNaughton's stirring high tenor that knifes through the rhythmic plinking.
His deep reading of Out Among The Stars - simultaneously boyishly naive and world-weary - is an obvious album highlight and points to a promising future beyond Dark Hollow and Cumberland Gap.
Evidently, McNaughton didn't choose to cover the tune written by Adam Mitchell, former frontman of Toronto psych-pop greats the Paupers, out of nationalistic pride or his deep love for KISS, with whom Mitchell has frequently collaborated.
"Y'know," chuckles McNaughton, "I'd read on a Web site about someone by that name writing songs for KISS, but I didn't think it was the same guy. Apparently, Mitchell emigrated from Scotland and hung out in Yorkville during the 60s, but I didn't know about the Paupers connection.
"I really loved Out Among The Stars from the moment I first heard my uncle Cliff Lickers sing it years ago. Since then, I've heard the Seldom Scene version, and I thought we should do it with the Foggys.
"There's so much emotion in those lyrics - I just hope I brought some of that out in my version."