By David Royko
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Their politics might be neutral, but the music of the Swiss is anything but.
The brothers Kruger--banjoist/vocalist Jens (pronounced "yence") and guitarist/lead vocalist Uwe (pronounced "ooveh")--and their resonator bassist/vocalist "brother," Joel Landsberg, are a bluegrass band when they play bluegrass, and on "Carolina Scrapbook," they do. This 3-disc set, which they consider a 2-disc set augmented by a third disc of "scraps," was recorded in sessions that followed the Kruger Brothers' Merlefest '99 appearances. The recordings were made in a large garage in North Carolina, and apparently were done rather informally, though professionally.
The trio invited guests to participate. Si Kahn, Michael Cleveland, Maynard Holbrook, Clint Howard, Jim Brooks, Moondi Klein, Wayne Henderson, and Tut Taylor are featured on material ranging from originals to traditional and, on the third CD, a few stories and even some opera courtesy the classically trained Klein.
The performances on the first two CDs are never less than charming, and frequently inspired. Jens' beguiling original instrumental, "Wind in the Wheat," Klein's shatteringly poignant vocal on "And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda," Taylor's dobro wizardry on his "Steven's Steel," and Henderson's spirited guitar picking on "Down Yonder," are just a few representative highlights of the "official" discs.
But it is the bonus "scraps" CD that elevates this set to a special status. Terrific stories and some of the most dazzling playing you will ever hear turn up in this pile of what horrifyingly could have been considered discards. And nobody shines more in these scraps than the young fiddlin' phenom Cleveland. Anybody who thinks the book is closed on "Orange Blossom Special" should hear what Jens and Cleveland do with it.
Jens' solo CD, which also includes Uwe and Landsberg, among others, shows some more of the range that the Kruger Brothers can cover. It fits comfortably into the "new acoustic" category, with the compositions coming from Jens. How refreshing it is to hear a modern banjoist who rarely brings Bela Fleck to mind. In fact, from the standpoint of whiz bang technique, "Carolina Scrapbook" has more fiery pyrotechnics than does "The Bridge," which, besides the visceral "Cork Harbor," puts the emphasis on thoughtful, meditative--not to say new-agey--music.
Based on this writer's sole experience with the Kruger Brothers in concert, they are a band not to be missed in person, but until that opportunity rolls around, these discs should do more than simply whet the appetite.
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