Blue Mafia – Hanging Tree
Blue Mafia has garnered considerable plaudits for their revitalization of the bluegrass form and their third studio outing, Hanging Tree, illustrates their attention to tradition while underscoring their originality. This is no mean feat, but Blue Mafia have established a much deserved reputation for utilizing bluegrass traditions in original and highly personal ways. The band’s chief songwriter, Dara Wray, obviously burns with a desire for self expression and it comes through in every offering on the album. Her husband Tony is the group’s other co-founding member and the duo have surrounded themselves with superb collaborators more than able to help them realize their musical vision. Hanging Tree’s twelve songs are well versed in the long history of bluegrass, but they also crackle and pop with the experiences of a life well and truly lived. Hanging Tree is a remarkable achievement by any standard.
The first indication of its beauty comes with the opener “Like a Mining Man”. This track amply shows newcomers that the band’s mastery of bluegrass is total and longtime fans will find themselves in familiar steady hands. There’s a whiff of inspiration surrounding these tunes; even if there’s covers and songs with subject matter seemingly lifted from another time and place in our history, Blue Mafia make each song sound like they were written days, if not hours, before their recording. You can’t fake this sort of freshness and it signals a group fully committed to getting their work over with the audience. “Hanging Tree” reaffirms that commitment. This is an even better song that shows off their instrumental facility with the deft blend of its various musical elements, but it has a deliberate movement that shows a band in control and striving for effects throughout the duration of the song. There are no shortcuts or half-measures taken. Blue Mafia’s material gets exactly what it needs to flourish. “Sweet Mary of the Mountain” returns the band from the title track’s folkie vibe into the more traditionally bluegrass minded textures of the first cut. It has a strong, striding chorus that the vocalists and musicians alike take full advantage of. Dara Wray’s first song on the album, “The Man You Know”, has some nicely incisive lyrics that sound slightly surprising juxtaposed against this sonic backdrop, but the effect is notable.
They delve into arch-traditional territory by covering “With Body and Soul”, but the performance doesn’t sound derivative in any way. Instead, Blue Mafia invests the song in an ebullient mood and their charisma comes through in every line. There’s a surprising lightly bitter touch on the song “Midnight Rain”, but it’s never overdone and contrasts well with the band’s typically artful musical treatment. “Say Won’t You Be Mine” is full of the yearning implied by its title and primarily led by Kent Todd’s lyrical fiddle playing that acts as practically another vocalist. The final song on Hanging Tree is written by a longtime fan and friend of the band. Kevin Hayes’ “Who Are You” has a surprising commercial quality that never cheapens the band’s approach and allows them an opportunity to stretch a little further musically. There’s something for everyone on this release.
9 out of 10 stars