Chicken Scratch (2002)
In an industry where the most-often asked musical question is "what kind of music do you play?" it's perhaps not surprising that it would be a couple of guys from the west coast of Canada who would smile and answer "Strang". What the hell, you may well ask, is Strang? Well, it's a whole lot easier to listen to than it is to describe. The musical influences and evocations in Strang could fill a record catalogue, but the short answer would be "acoustic music that kicks ass". It's folk music for people who don't like folk music- and for people who love it dearly. Those that have been listening to roots music over the last 25 years or so might find some musical sign posts pointing towards the work of Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, Ry Cooder, Darol Anger and David "Dawg" Grisman. However, you would also have to remember that these are the musical milestones of a previous generation.
For Steve Dawson and Jesse Zubot, this is just the starting point for the amazing musical journey that is Strang. While they were listening to all of the above, they were also listening to classical, country, folk, funk, rock, Hawaiian and bluegrass - all of which are now part of their musical DNA. You also have to add in 2 or 3 kinds of jazz, blues and electronica, all brought to you by 2 seriously accomplished musicians - Jesse on violin and mandolin and Steve on acoustic, National steel-bodied and Weissenborn Hawaiian guitars (a hollow-necked lap steel instrument).
It's been a few years since they left the Spirit Merchants and pop music's yellow brick road to take a musical path a little less traveled, and a little quieter. Tired of the volume levels and a growing sense that nobody could hear what they were playing anymore, they stepped out into a new musical space, which they call Strang. There's a danger when musicians get a few too many chops, especially when they get them too young. There are a lot of young players out there these days that fall in love with their own technique and seem to think life is just one big solo, and there are some older ones who sometimes play like they get paid by the note. One of the uncanniest things about Steve and Jesse is that they seem to be about 20 years ahead of their own time. There's a mental telepathy between these two musical minds rarely heard in those who are not blood kin or have not been playing beside each other for a generation. There's no question that they can turn it on and burn, but they can also hang back and listen to the spaces between the notes and, just as important, to each other. They can drag a beat so far back you think it's going to break and then take off into a musical space where nobody's ever been before, combining melody, rhythm and a "no fear" approach to improvisation that will take your breath away. To really appreciate it, you have to listen to their recordings and go hear them live. The music they create with such care and craft in the studio opens up live into something that has to be heard to be believed.
They've been nominated for all kinds of music awards at home and nationally and won more than their share. They've performed at most of the major folk and jazz festivals across the country (in many cases, more than once) and it also seems like nobody in western Canada wants to make a record these days without one or the other or both of them in the studio. Somehow, they also find time to involve themselves in new projects like The Great Uncles of the Revolution, and solo recordings to boot. And their musical world keeps growing. What began as the two of them now includes Andrew Downing on double bass and Elliot Polsky on percussion. Their musical friends now include heavyweights like Bob Brozman and Kelly Joe Phelps, as well as a long list of players from both the roots and jazz scenes on the west coast.
It's only been five short years since they embarked on this journey, and with each new CD and concert appearance their musical imaginations continue to inspire audiences and fellow players. In the spirit of constant change and evolution, Zubot and Dawson have picked up where their last recording left off. While Strang (1998) was a more traditional duo-oriented acoustic recording, and Tractor Parts (2000) introduced some even more original work and highlighted a band that had some time to find a unique sound and groove, Chicken Scratch, their first release on True North Records, is the next logical step and is the new sound of Strang music.
With Lee Townsend at the helm (legendary producer of Bill Frisell and John Scofield fame), Zubot and Dawson take us on an aural rollercoaster, from the explosive odd-metered groove of "Ed's Wake", to the catchy banjo-driven rootsy-lope of "Shame About it" and the haunting "King of America". Kelly Joe Phelps slips in for a blood-curdling rendition of Robert Johnson's Hellhounds On My Trail, and then appears again for a beautiful take on the John Martyn classic "May You Never". Zubot and Dawson's sense of humour rears its head in the form of "Hoedown", where bluegrass meets electronics and free-improvisation. The deep bluesy strains of "Two Caps" is a startling contrast to the Cuban-inspired "Paloma" (an ode to a Cuban horse who perished while a startled Steve Dawson was riding him). So keep an eye and an ear peeled for Steve and Jesse turning up in your town soon onstage and in the racks of your discerning local CD vendor. Strang is a new acoustic musical adventure, and it may well prove to be infinite!