In an email conversation I had with Alex Sturbaum (they/them) after they contacted me about reviewing this album, one of my comments was something on the order of “this is an incredibly generous album.” And I didn’t just mean the fact that it includes 21 tracks of top-notch music of the kind that you’d hear at a contradance in the Pacific Northwest. It’s also a generous sharing of his recording with a host of guest musicians playing lead on fiddles and the occasional nyckelharpa or banjo as Alex lays down their driving, percussive rhythm guitar accompaniment.
Slash is the fourth solo album for Alex, who tours regularly both solo and as half of the duo Countercurrent with Brian Lindsay. They also teach, record, and produce projects such as The Vashon Sessions (a collaborative music project connecting musicians across the Pacific Northwest) and Raise the Rafters (an annual traditional singing weekend). In addition to that driving guitar, Alex also plays accordion and composes contemporary folk songs with and without lyrics that draw on traditions of Celtic, American, English, Canadian, and maritime music. Based in Olympia, Wash., they also own Scrub Jay Studio in Olympia, where Slash was recorded and mixed.
I’m just gobsmacked at how much wonderful music there is on this album. Maybe my reaction is partly due to the fact that I haven’t been to a contradance since late 2019, and I’m not sure when or if I’ll ever get to go dancing again. But if you’re a contradancer or just enjoy energetic, rhythmic fiddle music out of these traditions, you owe it to yourself to check out Slash.
It’s simply impossible to pick favorite tracks on this collection, but one that really grabs me is Track 8, which features Portland fiddler George Penk, who as a member of Joy Ride and other ensembles has played at some of the best dances I’ve attended in the past 30-odd years. He starts it off with a lovely waltz called Kapa’a Sands, named for a lovely beach on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, one of my favorite spots on the planet. The tune was written by Oregon multi-instrumentalist Todd Silverstein, who’s also played at countless dances I’ve attended. It’s paired with a couple of traditional tunes, “Farrell O’Gara” and “The Dunmore Lasses,” which the guitarist and the fiddler attack in very energetic fashion.
Most of the 21 tracks on Slash consist of multiple tune sets, which further adds to the value and variety. And most of those tunes are traditional, with a few interesting exceptions. Among the contemporary tunes are the first few you get right out of the gate. The first track features Asheville, North Carolina fiddler Noah Van Norstrand a couple of driving reels he composed, “The Long Summer” and “Recycling In A.” And next up is a very international set played in a lyrical and energetic style by Cayley Miranda Schmid, who in addition to fiddling is director of the Bellingham Folk Festival. The tunes are the jig “Echo Falls” by piper Ryan Murphy of the Irish band Mànran, and reels “Francis the Miller” by Cape Breton fiddler Dougie MacDonald and “Feis Seattle” by Scottish fiddler Ewen Henderson.
It’s not all fiddles and jigs, reels and waltzes, either. Just when you’re thinking “I could use a break from the fiddling,” here comes Amy Hakanson of Portland, playing nyckelharpa on a couple of lovely polskas. The mellow and distinctive sound of the Swedish instrument is a nice break. As is the set featuring the mellow clawhammer banjo of Philadelphian Cameron DeWhitt on a tune called “Marion Reece’s Cumberland Gap.” A bit more variety comes from a set of three Quebecois tunes from Seattle publicist, writer and fiddler Devon Léger.
And I’ve really just scratched the surface. If this piques your interest at all (and it should!), do check it out on Bandcamp, where you can listen to and purchase it.
(Alex Sturbaum, 2022)