A review by
PORT HARDY—The Tishomingo String Band did not come into Saturday’s show with Juno-winning credentials or a familiar catalogue of hits the audience could latch onto.
Still, they managed a big win by employing a simple bit of musical honesty in the second event of the North Island Concert Society’s second show of the 2014-15 season at the Civic Centre.
Vancouver-based Tishomingo sells itself as a bluegrass band. And the quartet of Devon Wells on banjo, brothers Jacob and Chris Russell on mandolin and guitar, respectively, and Russell Sholberg on double bass definitely gave the crowd a taste of both traditional and original bluegrass during Saturday’s show.
But the unlikely foursome, whose work ranged far afield from bluegrass into approximations of jazz, country, pop and various fusion arrangements of all of these genres, eventually won over the audience by simply delivering an evening of good, old-fashioned fun.
Sholberg was a late replacement for regular bassist Colin Cowan, who was unavailable for the North Island visit. But despite not having performed with the full group before, he proved a capable pro, feeding off cues from Chris Russell to stay on-key.
This is a group not strong on vocals. Lucas Russell’s raw, oddly toneless, Tom Waits-like growl and Wells’ high end-challenged tenor provided most of the lead vocals, though the group sounded cleaner when it went to three- and four-part harmony.
Instrumentally, though, the group was tight and quite proficient. While none of the solos ascended to the level of “pryotechnic,” as one observer noted, all four performers nailed their individual spotlights, and the duets featuring Wells and each of the Russell brothers were spot-on.
Opening the first set with a mix of traditionals and originals from their two recorded CDs, including the recently released Dangerfield, Tishomingo received polite but unremarkable response. The intricate, tempo-bending original Sunderland’s Waltz perked the crowd’s interest, and the band seemed to capture listeners with the Earl Scruggs banjo classic Foggy Mountain Breakdown.
Coming out of intermission, Tishomingo took a major risk by dividing its forces. Jacob Russell, who had traveled by bus to join his mates that evening, played a series of three solo songs in the Ottawa Valley folk vein. He then stepped aside as Wells, Chris Russell and Sholberg took the stage for four numbers that Russell described as, “A sort of country jazz; I don’t really know what it is.”
Neither did the audience. But with Wells setting aside the banjo for a dobro, the fusion-laced instrumental set proved a highlight of the evening.
When the full band returned to finish out the show, they stuck with their strength — instrumental numbers — and loosened up noticeably onstage, with comfortable banter and successful calls for the audience to join in clapping and singing along.
Paying tribute to influences ranging from Django Rheinhardt to Bob Wills, and throwing in classic Balkan folk and Scottish fiddle songs, Tishomingo kept the audience — and perhaps themselves — engaged and interested.
A well-earned encore of four brief numbers wrapped up with Dueling Banjos, with Chris Russell’s capable guitar providing the counterpoint for Wells’ eponymous picking.
These guys ain’t famous. But on this night, at least, they were worth the price of a ticket.
The NICS season resumes in February with Six Guitars. For more info, visit niconcert.ca.