When The Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers first appeared on my radar, the western Pennsylvania band had just released their debut CD The Lane Change, which straddled the line between bluegrass and old-time with a strong emphasis on original material. Two albums later, PoisonRiverstill has dual lead singers Gary Antol (guitar) and Libby Eddy (fiddle) fronting the band, and they’re still presenting an admirable array of original songs. They’re now fully planted in bluegrass, powered by mandolinist/fiddler Raymond Bruckman, resonator guitarist Jody Mosser, and bassist Evan Bell.
Antol and Eddy have such markedly different vocal timbres that it can feel like you’re getting two bands for the price of one. Antol’s singing is relatively straightforward, while Eddy’s has the feel of a not-quite-converted rocker/belter (reminiscent of the tonal counterpoint John Cowan and Sam Bush presented in Newgrass Revival). Bruckman’s two compositions, “Benezette Blues” and “Don’t Go Across The Ocean,” allow the band to flex their considerable instrumental chops, the former at a breakneck tempo and the latter with a syncopated flurry. Eddy also contributes a lovely fiddle showpiece, “Hesper’s Waltz.” The group brings in a cover from the band Sweet Sunny South, “You Never Even Knew My Name,” and a song co-written by Frank Serio and the late Sue Cunningham, “St. Anne’s Prayer.”
Despite (or perhaps because of) Eddy’s powerful delivery, the band seems to gel best on some of the gentler songs, such as “The Homefront” and “Things Take Time,” when the voices are allowed to blend better. The aforementioned “St. Anne’s Prayer” features Eddy on a vocal overdubbed duet, which features her vocal chops, but makes it seem like less of a band effort. The album ends in a charming fashion, with Eddy taking the lead on “When The Redbud Blooms,” an old-fashioned bucolic yet lively song that is capped by a bonus-track that presumably features the song’s author, Ron Fletcher, phoning in a demo of his song for the band to learn. Little surprises like this confirm The Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers are carving out their own territory in the competitive field of contemporary bluegrass. (www.jakobsferry.com)HK