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Published: 2005/06/02
by Mike Greenhaus

Run – Old School Freight Train

Acoustic Disc 61

Old School Freight Train is a union of dawg musicians. For those unfamiliar with the term, David Grisman originally coined the word "dawg" to describe his sound, an acoustic blend of jazz, folk and bluegrass. Since the early 1970s, when Grisman co-founded Old and in the Way with Jerry Garcia, dawg music has remained jam-nation's closest kin in the old-time world, teaching generations of Deadheads the value of storytelling. Yet, since dawg music is still so closely associated with its founder's distinct mandolin style, it's often difficult for a young act to cultivate a unique sound. But, as evidenced on their Acoustic Disc debut Run, Old School Freight Train has found the key to escaping Grisman’s shadow: standing beside him.

Recruiting Grisman as Run’s producer, Old School Freight Train embraces its influence from the outset, offering a dozen dawg-inspired cuts under the mandolinist’s guidance. Jumping between up-tempo instrumentals ("Lookee Here)," waltz-time ballads ("Run") and the occasional sea-shanty ("Mr. Parshif’s Jig"), Old School Freight Train’s sound is rooted in another era. Ignoring current musical trends, the Virginia-bred quintet offers an entirely acoustic collection of mostly original compositions, tied to the rock era mainly through a rearranged cover of Stevie Wonder’s "Superstition." But, what keeps the group of young musicians current is its attitude and presence, which resets the wide-eyed energy of the best jamband in a decisively bluegrass context. Jumping between styles with youthfully robust zeal, Old School Freight Train breathes new energy into a weathered sound. Indeed, the group accomplishes tight time changes on choice numbers like "Broken Pieces" and the easily danceable "Tango Chutney."

While he appears only on the slightly Arabic-flavored "Euridice," Grisman's presence is felt throughout Run, guiding the group as it uses bluegrass instruments to engage in jazz-style improvisation. While Run is largely restrained, favoring storytelling over long-winded solos, Old School Freight Train consistently proves its chops through its instrumental passages, especially on "Tango Chutney" and through Darrell Muller’s upright bass work on "Euridice." Perhaps Run’s best offering, "Drama Queen," a collaboration between guitarist Jesse Harper and banjoist Ben Krakauer, is an endearing ballad, which showcases surprisingly mature lyrics. Drawing from a modern lexicon, Old School Freight Train also manages to modernize traditional dawg music by using age-old forms of storytelling to recall a post-millennium personal experience.

Boasting four songwriters, Old School Freight Train is also a union of equals, each of whom seem comfortable both as leaders and auxiliary players. Harper, who serves as the album's lead vocalist and guitarist, also provides some of the album's gentlest moments through his percussion work, while the group's three-part harmonies shine brightest on "Broken Pieces." A slow cover of Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927" also showcases Harper's soothing vocal skills.

As the de facto spokesman for dawg music, Grisman's decision to join Old School Freight Train in the studio serves as the group's ultimate validation. In his personalized liner notes Grisman says, "their finely-crafted tunes and innovative arrangements bring creativity, taste and wit to a broad spectrum of contemporary styles, as firmly rooted in many traditions." In certain respects, Grisman is dead on, capturing the group's young, hungry energy. Yet the joy of Run is that it sounds old enough, and wise enough, to be another vintage recording reissued on Grisman’s homegrown Acoustic Disc imprint. And, while Grisman’s approval may have initially green-lighted Old School Freight Train, this quintet is now able to run with its success.

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