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Circa Blue

Once Upon a Time – 2016 (Orange Blossom)

Reviewed by Greg Yost

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Few bluegrass bands produce a sound that mirrors a geographic location quite as well as Circa Blue does. The quintet hails from West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle, a region that serves as a bit of a buffer space between the fast-paced life and urban setting of the Washington, D.C. metro region and the more rural parts of northern West Virginia dominated by the Appalachian and Allegheny Mountains. Fittingly, this unit plays a style of acoustic music that lies somewhere in between the genre's traditional and progressive poles - a sound that is on full display on "Once Upon A Time."

The opener, "Carolina Dust," features guitarist Steve Harris on lead vocals. Nothing flashy here, just a nice and bluesy mid-tempo number to settle the listener in before the group's picking talents are unleashed on the turbo-charged "Before You Leave Here," showcasing the speed and dexterity of Matt Hickman on banjo and Malia Furtado on fiddle.

Furtado's vocal contributions are then highlighted as she takes the lead on the title track. By instrumentation and arrangement, "Once Upon A Time" is a bluegrass tune, but the light and catchy melody has a decided pop feel. Furtado also steals the show on "I Sing Your Song," a lovely duet that shines in its simplicity.

The pop influence is found on another of the standout tracks. "Tripped Stumbled and Fell," featuring lead vocals by bassist Ashley Stewart. This is a jaunty and breezy tune that works nicely in a bluegrass setting, but could also shine with a traditional pop instrumentation.

"Once Upon a Time" closes with three covers, achieving varying degrees of success. Listeners will likely remember the "Queen Of Hearts," a track Juice Newton took all the way to number 2 on the pop charts in 1981. The catchy melody is undeniable, but the Circa Blue version is a bit flat - a straight rendition of the song with bluegrass instrumentation. It would have been nice to see the band change it up a little more and truly own the cover.

The band takes a very nice turn on the well-known "Rain And Snow," a song from the public domain. The tempo here is more plodding than most versions and opens up spaces for both group harmonies and individual instrumentalists to shine.

Circa Blue's lovely rendition of Gordon Lightfoot's "Whispers Of The North" brings the album to a satisfying end. The Canadian singer/songwriter has long been a muse for bluegrass artists like Tony Rice, and this Circa Blue version once again proves that his songs are excellent fodder for top notch bluegrass players.