Don’t let the band’s name lead you to think this group plays old-time music. The West End String Band plays bluegrass, both traditional and in the progressive style of the 1970s, and does so quite well and with energy and grit.
Fronting the band is singer/guitarist Charlie McDaniel, a vocalist whose wizened, slyly all-knowing vocals bend back and forth across the baritone range and are laden with blues, rock and country inflections. He’s at his best when he’s growling his way through the Waylon Jennings hit “Lonesome, Onry And Mean,” or when he’s putting an emotional bluesy twist to “Streets Of Baltimore” or to Gram Parsons’ “A Song For You,” or a devil-may-care swagger to “Act Naturally.” That’s him at his best, but he gives a good account of himself all through, from Paul Williams’ “Deep River” to his readings of such standards as “Reuben’s Train,” “Friend Of The Devil” and “I’ll Go Stepping Too.”
McDaniel’s wife, Kathy, is on the bass and sings harmony here and there, while Jim Rollins plays the banjo in a predominantly precise and driving traditional style and sings the tenorish lead on the most traditional-sounding tracks—Monroe’s “Dark As The Night,” and Ralph Stanley’s “Poor Rambler.” He also contributes the album’s sole original, a clever instrumental called “West End Turn-Around,” which is centered around a well-known, shave-and-a-haircut-like lick that bobs up now and again amidst the jazz and bluegrass blend of the main theme. Adding notable guest support to the mix are fiddler Bob Buckingham, reso-guitarist Jared McIntire and mandolinist Matt Purinton.
As debuts go, there is much to like from this Greenville, S.C.-based group. The spirit and performances are of a high, regional caliber, and the eleven songs offer a variety of styles and moods, mixing about evenly, bluegrass and non-bluegrass standards with more ambitious covers, and standard arrangements with more creative approaches. (West End String Band, 29 Meyers Ct., Greenville, SC 29609, [email protected].)BW