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What started as a holiday band is now NewGrange

By George Hauenstein, December 1999

What do you get when you combine six of today's top acoustic musicians, each with resumes including landmark work with such acts as Alison Krauss, Hot Rize, David Grisman, Tony Rice, The Turtle Island String Quartet, Peter Gabriel, Elvin Bishop and J.D. Crowe?

In the case of the new band NewGrange, you get an acoustic music super-group that pays tribute to American roots music while giving it its own contemporary flair.

"We offer a unique interpretation of traditional American folk music," says banjo player Alison Brown, also an owner of Compass Records, the label that put out the NewGrange release.

"We all really like traditional music, everybody in the band has appreciation for traditional, American music...folk music."

Mandolin player/vocalist Tim O'Brien concurs. "We want to present the music in a way that respects what has come before and relates it to current concerns."

In addition to Brown and O'Brien, NewGrange consists of Mike Marshall, guitar/mandolin/violin; Darol Anger, violin/fiddle; Todd Phillips, bass; and Philip Aaberg, piano.

All are innovators as well as skilled musicians. Brown continues, "Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, and Todd Phillips were there at beginning of DAWG music (with David Grisman)."

"Darol Anger and Todd Phillips were in the original David Grisman Quartet," Brown says, adding, "That band was the beginning of new acoustic music. That music has shaped direction of acoustic string music. I can't imagine what acoustic instrumental music would be like without these innovations and these innovators. These guys took it to a whole new place."

NewGrange began as a short-term project to play Christmas concerts last year. Brown says a booking agent, who used to book Windham Hill's Solstice Tour, called Anger.

"Darol Anger called Mike Marshall, and they put together a fantasy band," says Brown. "They decided on the other four (of us)."

The band went into the studio and recorded "A Christmas Heritage" CD (Six Degrees Records) and began a series of concerts to promote the CD. According to Brown, "Halfway through the tour, we realized we were having so much fun...(and we wanted to be) more than a holiday band."

"We were really a real band. We began to look for other opportunities to play together." says O'Brien, a bluegrass veteran. "We realized that it was more than a one time thing (right away)...we were a band after playing together for a week."

It wasn't until sometime later that they decided the band should have a name.

"We didn`t start thinking about the name NewGrange until we decided we were looking for a band identity...About halfway through the tour we decided we were a band. That's when the idea of calling it NewGrange came about," says Brown.

The band's name comes from a song that O'Brien wrote for the "A Christmas Heritage" CD, "Newgrange."

"It's a place in Ireland...built 5,000 years ago so that on a winter solstice the sun would shine through the window and illuminate the whole inside of the stone structure," says Brown.

O'Brien is the primary vocalist with NewGrange. But, rather than building the music around one members' considerable vocal talents, as many groups do, Brown says, "Our goal is to treat vocals as another texture or another instrument...(we're) looking for ways to integrate vocals into the sound of the band as seamlessly as we can."

O'Brien says, "The voice is like another instrument. They're (the other NewGrange members) are all used to being in instrumental groups. Here, the voice is equal member...a flavor of all things I can do. My singing compliments what these other guys do the best...That's my featured role."

One of the most unique features of NewGrange is the piano of Aaberg, a former Windham Hill artist. He has performed with Peter Gabriel and Elvin Bishop, among others. Brown says, "It's fascinating the way he integrates piano in acoustic string music...It surprises the bluegrass audiences, but they feel really comfortable with the music."

Material for the band's debut came from a variety of sources. The CD contains NewGrange renditions of such bluegrass and traditional tunes as "Goin' To Boston," "Sally Ann," "Handsome Molly" and the gospel "Rock In a Weary Land." Many of the other songs come directly from the band members themselves.

According to Brown, "We decided that each (of us) would bring one traditional tune and one original tune to the studio when we made our new record. A lot of originals, especially the instrumental stuff, was written with this band in mind."

One of the album's cuts, O'Brien's "Lands End," was recorded in concert.

"We taped all of our shows last year," says Brown. "We'd wanted to put one of the mandolin tunes on the record. We listened to DATs of a live show...we thought it would add a nice dimension to the record to have a live track."

"There's so much material to draw from. (We're) always working up new material."

Brown says it was a natural that the NewGrange project would be released on her Compass Records label, based in Nashville. "There were no conversations about doing it with anybody else. (It's a) great chance for me to spearhead the marketing and promotion of a band...(with) some of the best practitioners of new acoustic music right here."

As for the future of NewGrange, Brown says, "This is a busy bunch. We all have our own things. Tim O'Brien has dates with his own band (featuring Darrell Scott - the pair have an album coming out in April) and also dates with Steve Earle. Darol Anger and Mike Marshall band have just released an album on Compass. In addition to running a record company, I have the Alison Brown Quartet that tours."

Brown says that NewGrange will do at least 30 dates together next year, whichwill include "Merlefest and maybe some of the other festivals."

"We planned on special occasion kinds of things...but the special occasions occur more often than you might have thought at the beginning."