The Coal Porters

Durango: April 17-April 30

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The Coal Porters had a bit of a shaky start in the recording studio after Sid Griffin retooled the group into an acoustic "alt bluegrass" combo, but their third album, Durango, shows this band has clearly turned a corner. The Coal Porters have gone through a number of personnel changes since 2004's How Dark This Earth Will Shine, and that's made for a significantly stronger band; while Griffin's vocals and mandolin and Neil Robert Herd's guitar are still the cornerstone of their arrangements, fiddler Carly Frey's strong but supple style does wonders for the group, while Dick Smith on banjo and Jeff Kazmierski on bass clearly outclass their predecessors in the CP's without calling undo attention to themselves. Griffin's belief in democracy is such that even through he's easily the Coal Porters' best songwriter, he insists on letting his bandmates contribute material for this album, but Herd brings a few solid numbers to the table (in particular "The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Oil" and "One Is Way Too Many"), and Frey presents a fine new arrangement of "Sail Away, Ladies." Griffin's "No More Chains," "Permanent Twilight," and "Lookin' for a Soft Place to Fall" show he's still an ace tunesmith, and the covers of the folk chestnut "Pretty Polly" and Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane" demonstrate the Porters have learned how to shape other people's songs into something that fits them just right. Producer and engineer Ed Stasium has given these sessions a strong, clear sound that's natural and flattering to the musicians while catching the sparks of their instrumental interplay. Some fans wonder when, or if, Griffin will ever pick up an electric guitar and start rocking out again, but Durango shows that he's leading an exciting acoustic band with enough strength and confidence to more than compensate for their lack of amplifiers.

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