“People are generally surprised we are a bluegrass band from Toronto or that there is even a bluegrass scene at all,” says Darryl Poulsen, guitarist for The Slocan Ramblers. “But I always say, “You can drive from Toronto to Virginia in 10 hours.” The quartet (Frank Evans on banjo, Adrian Gross on mandolin and Alastair Whitehead on bass) drove a little bit further, playing Merlefest and then taking the month of May to tour around North Carolina. The musicians make a stop at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall, hosting a bluegrass session, on Tuesday, May 24, at 7:30 p.m. Free show.
Xpress: What was your experience like playing Merlefest, and what was a favorite performance that you saw there?
Darryl Poulsen (guitarist): We had an amazing experience both attending and playing MerleFest. The festival really lives up to its reputation. The sound crew, transportation crew, cooks and everyone else involved work hard to make it easy for us musicians to do our job.
It’s difficult to choose a “best” performance, but Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings (Dave Rawlings Machine) really stood out. The songwriting and musicianship in the band is as good as it gets. I think it’s fair to say we all left Merlefest that night feeling very inspired. Other notable acts (trying not to leave anyone out) would be The Wood Brothers, Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys, the Kruger Brothers, In with the Old and Sutton, Holt and Coleman.
You’re spending the month of May touring in and around North Carolina. What inspired the tour, and do you have a special connection to N.C.?
We generally try to book a major festival or performance we can build a tour around. This tour in particular was anchored around MerleFest. Once we knew we would be down here, Adrian (our mandolinist) started to research the area. We have friends who have toured down here in the past and recommended a lot of venues and clubs to pursue for gigs.
A lot of our favorite music and musicians hail from the Appalachians. It’s fair to say bluegrass was born down here so the fact that we get to tour through these parts is very special for us. We are on day five of a month-long tour, but we are already starting to feel a connection down here. We have meet some great people and have seen a lot of amazing music. It will be hard to leave, but luckily we get to come back in the fall, and it’s not going to be the last time, either.
I like the quote in your bio, “Toronto audiences don’t respond to a clean, polished Nashville sound.” How did playing to such audiences help you hone your sound and your stage show?
The Slocan Ramblers used to play every Tuesday night in Toronto (three years total) at a bar called The Cloak & Dagger. The band would play three sets of music to a lot of pretty energetic audiences. As a band, we really fed off the energy and learned how to play at louder volumes to be audible. For a full acoustic band using a couple microphones it was always a bit of a challenge to be heard. In a lot of ways, I think those Tuesday nights really let the band develop its own rough-around-the-edges sound. Musicgoers would always comment about us moving around and stepping up to the microphones (microphone choreography) whether it was a mandolin solo or a three-part vocal harmony. I think they liked the way the music was being presented, visually and sonically, and our willingness to always play more songs late into the night.
In what ways does Canadian roots music differ from U.S. roots music?
The song content is sometimes noticeable. People tend to write songs about what they know or have experienced. We know Canada quite well and have gotten to see a lot of it in the last few years. We’ve written songs that have references to specific places or instrumentals named after things we experienced in Canada. The content in a Appalachian bluegrass song could be about the hills in Virginia or a cabin home in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Born and raised in Canada, we didn’t grow up around that, so for us it’s great to spend some time down here and really experience it. You get a better perspective about what a lot of these guys were writing about and what inspired them.
Canadian songwriters are influenced by American songwriters and vice versa. Look at Tony Rice doing a whole bluegrass album of Gordon Lightfoot songs, or prolific songwriters like Ian Tyson and Neil Young making their music well known in the United States.
You talk about both the power and the fragile moments in the music. How do you find that balance while playing?
We are aware of how much of an impact simple things can have, like playing hard and loud or soft and quietly. Dynamics can add a lot of excitement and emotion to music. As a band, we listen for what we think a song needs or what we could do to put our own stamp on it. The way a song is arranged can add power or make a section of a song more fragile. We like to experiment with different pairs of instruments. The contrast of a full band playing, full steam ahead, to a mandolin solo, with only rhythm guitar backup, can break up the song and give it power and fragility at the same time.
Everyone in the band will look for and bring in songs that we will put our stamp on. The music and arrangements will evolve through live performance. We might arrange a song and find out after playing it a few times that it’s not working the way we had hoped, so we’ll go back to the drawing board and work on it until it feels right.
What do you most hope an audience takes away from one of your shows?
For myself, I like to take away inspiration and experience from live music. Some of the best shows I’ve ever seen are still etched in my memory and give me chills when I think back on them. So many times I’ve seen a great musical performance and immediately went home to practice or write music. It’s probably what got all of us playing music in the first place. You go see a live band somewhere and it inspires you to start learning for yourself. For an audience at a Slocan Ramblers show, we hope we can reciprocate those feelings.