If there’s something to be said for the unspectacular but solid, the slow and steady, there’s something to be said for Old School Freight Train. Another in a long line of un-bluegrass bands in which instruments associated with the genre— in this case mandolin, acoustic guitar, banjo, upright bass, and fiddle— get pointed in other directions, the group makes station stops at bluegrass, Latin, swing, and acoustic jazz. In short, they worship at the temple of the Dawg.
They cop the influence of mandolinist extraordinaire and friend-of-Jerry-Garcia David Grisman, who liked his blend of the aforementioned styles (chuck gypsy music in there for good measure) so much he gave it its own Snoop-ish name, i.e., Dawg. It’s not surprising that OSFT’s end result, more like fusion than preservation, looks sideways at Dave and Jerry more than it looks backward at Dave and Jerry’s models.
Though they can sound like Phish without electric guitar, most tracks from their recent eponymous debut on Richmond’s Courthouse Records clock in at an un-jammy four minutes. The seriousness and discipline implied in their decision to practice for several months before ever playing out is the concrete and steel that holds things together, keeping solos short and efficient, and influencing the tidy arrangements.
Though it’s never sterile stuff, OSFT could stand some grass stains (no pun intended). An instrumental bluegrass chugger like “Beaver Creek Shakedown” is a handcart compared to a locomotive like “Rock Valley Prison,” where vocal harmonies and increased p.p.m. (picks per minute) make for a sharpness lacking on some of the overly ambitious fusion attempts.
Their Latin trips tend to be more scenic excursions. Like a vibrant conversation, “Beginner’s Mind” brings quiet percussion to bear against spiky guitar licks courting insouciant fiddle lines. The warm, softly lit ambiance of “Tango Chutney” is smoky like a good cigar, while the acoustic, understated swinging jazz of “Dog and Pony Show” possesses a formal wit and charm. At these stops, the Train delivers a strange but recognizable hunger-inducing brew.
Old School Freight Train performs at Mellow Mushroom, Friday, March 22. $5, 10:30pm.