Thursday, April 03, 2008

***Astrograss***

A few weeks ago I heard South Slope String Band's Jonah Bruno and Astrograss' Jordan Shapiro performing a bunch of John Hartford songs on Columbia U.'s WKCR. Not only was the performance entertaining, it inspired me to go out and find more of Hartford's stuff, seeing as all I knew about him was his cover of Albert E. Brumley's "Turn Your Radio On".

Now, my point is this: Here's a guy, Shapiro, that is, who's sincerely devoted to the NYC bluegrass scene, yet he and his band, Dennis Lichtman, Tim Kiah, and Alan Grubner, put as much heart and soul into this children's album as they would a project for adults. That's right, folks, after several years of promoting the newgrass movement and combining the poetry of Shel Silverstein with banjos and mandolins, Astrograss have finally released their first full-length CD for kids and their families, Let Me Stay Up All Night.

These guys are all over the Brooklyn music scene, including stints in the South Slope String Band, Cold River, Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks, the Bill Bell Band, the Jen Milich Band, Keep 'er Lit, Citigrass ... get the idea? Shapiro is also in cahoots with fellow Brooklyn kidrockers Audra Rox, whose lead singer Audra Tsanos and backup vocalist Jennifer Milich contribute voices to Let Me Stay Up All Night.

The album blasts off with the homophone explosion "There Their They're", while the banjos, mandolins, fiddles, guitars, and stand up bass continue to roar through the next tune, a great cover of the old standard "Drunken Sailor". And check out the arrangement of the pro-ecosystem "Have It the Earth's Way"... Prog-Grass anyone?

The title tune's Celtic party atmosphere is made even livelier by the 4/4 verse - 3/4 chorus - on-the-one funk coda, while "Garbage Van" and "Bigfoot Stan" are obvious Silverstein homages. "Airplane" is Astrograss music set to contest winner Charles Guillot-Marquet's lyrics, and "Irish Ice Cream" is an Eire-flavored ode to an odd food choice.

The most "kid song" song on the album, a tune celebrating bubblewrap, is "Pit Piddle Paddle", which contains the CD's best line: "Don't hide away the playthings of your soul". And, well, I guess if you can fry an egg on the sidewalk you can eat "Dashboard Corn" while you drive along I-80.

Astrograss' celebration of their home borough began with "Bigfoot Stan" and continues with "The Brooklyn Neighborhood Song", which is followed by another great cover, "Oh! Susanna". Then our ex-ninth planet gets an astrologist apologist's treatment with the march-like "Who Says Pluto's Not a Planet?".

Contest winner James Feinberg provided the words to "Sayings", whose combination of sweet/deadpan vocals sounds a lot like the Velvet Underground's "Lady Godiva's Operation". My favorite tunes happen to be the final two, "My Shadow" and "Astrograss". The former could be a Top 5 hit on any Contemporary Country station back home, seriously; while the latter is the band's concise theme song, a quick way to know where they're coming from.

Like many kids' bands, Astrograss are best experienced live. Hey! Whydoncha come on over to the Donnell Central Children's Room of The New York Public Library this Saturday? Astrograss will be headlining our "Shel-ebration", an afternoon of music, poetry, and crafts, beginning at 2:30pm sharp. If you and your little ones can't make it, give Let Me Stay Up All Night a spin and have your own little hootenanny.