Dry Branch Fire Squad

Live at the Newburyport Firehouse

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It would be way too simple to call Dry Branch Fire Squad a bluegrass band. They play bluegrass, certainly, but they infuse it with mountain gospel harmonies and an intimate knowledge of Appalachian folk melodies until it would seem to be something else again, a sort of natural extension of the old-time string bands, not slick and showy like most contemporary bluegrass, but rustic and creaky and perfectly executed for believability rather than speed. But that's not all. Frontman and multi-instrumentalist Ron Thomason's amazing and hilarious song introductions, which range over all manner of political, social, and cultural themes in his disarming hillbilly accent, make DBFS a kind of cross between a hot string band and Alan Lomax doing standup comedy while an ethnomusicologist does sly commentary on the side. Thomason's fractured monologues are so alluring that the songs they introduce, which are brilliantly played and impeccably selected, seem almost like commercials when they finally appear. Dry Branch Fire Squad simply has to be heard live to be fully appreciated, which is why this two-disc concert set is the perfect place to sample this one of a kind band. Thomason here is wry, subtle, charming, and wickedly funny as he skewers big government, rural perceptions, uptown folk music, and all manner of other targets, while the songs themselves, which include three written by Gillian Welch ("Orphan Child," "Miner's Refrain," "By the Mark"), a Merle Haggard standard ("Lonesome Fugitive"), and a Grayson & Whitter classic ("He's Coming to Us Dead"), are given stellar performances that border on definitive. If Comedy Central and the Smithsonian got together to sponsor a traveling old-time music show, that show would sound something like Dry Branch Fire Squad, a truly unique American band.

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