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Northern Lights shines in bluegrass

By Dan Kuchar, September 1996

Labeling music, like labeling groceries, seldom tells the whole story.

The label on a box of cereal can tell you what the contents are, but is woefully inadequate in terms of how it tastes.

Labeling the Boston area's Northern Lights a bluegrass band can probably give you an idea that it's a band with a banjo and a fiddle, but it falls short - way short - of describing the musical diversity and high-octane playing chops that emanate from this nationally-acclaimed group.

To be sure, Northern Lights are veterans of every major bluegrass and folk music festival from Boston to Las Vegas, but these are not guys that blow into jugs, smoke corn cob pipes or hold their pants up with a piece of rope instead of a belt.

Their music is thoroughly steeped in the bluegrass tradition, but as their new album, "Living In The City," on their new label, Red House Records, demonstrates, their sound includes sizable chunks of jazz, blues and gospel.

Flip the CD in the player, and you'll hear banjo wizard Mike Kropp's fingers blaze across the fretboard at breakneck speed.

Guitarist Bill Henry's flat-picks as well as any Nashville session player, but a closer listen reveals that there's also some blues in them thar hills.

Band leader Taylor Armerding's mandolin playing sprinkles brilliant flashes of jazz and rock seamlessly with his traditional bluegrass playing style.

Armerding's son Jake is an 18-year old wunderkind whose vicious fiddle playing has left a long trail of dropped jaws.

Northern Lights could most certainly have earned their reputation as one of the finest bluegrass bands anywhere on their instrumental prowess alone.

But when they sing, they are just plain unstoppable. Hearing the senior Armerding sing, one would never know that he is from the East Coast. He counts Ricky Skaggs (who was heavily influenced by the Stanley Brothers) as an early influence, but says, "I've also tried to just develop my own style, which probably comes from years of listening to dozens of great singers who might be lesser known but are still contributing to the music."

He has a voice as high and lonesome as anything you'll hear in Appalachia. His lead vocals are well supported by the band's harmonies, tighter than blue jeans after a swim.

An outsider wouldn't think of New England as having a thriving bluegrass 'scene.' Still, Northern Lights is busier than ever playing mostly on the East Coast.

Armerding explains that while bluegrass is still fringe music in New England, the true fans are immensely supportive and loyal. "You see many of the same faces every time," he says in a telephone interview just after returning from a bluegrass fest in Las Vegas.

"And we, as a band, appeal to those people more than a traditional band would, because, we are really a fusion band, based in bluegrass but dipping into jazz, folk, rock, blues etc.," he says.

Does Northern Lights get any negativity from the bluegrass purists? "Yes," Armerding confides, "Just this past weekend, at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, of all places, a guy involved with the bluegrass association out there mentioned to our manager that I have a great voice, except when I 'waste it' on some of those 'other' (i.e. non-traditional) songs."

The group's material usually includes gospel songs, typically penned by Taylor Armerding. While he hopes the gospel songs will become part of the bluegrass tradition, they also reflect his personal beliefs.

Besides bluegrass, what other kinds of music are you and the other members of the group influenced by? "We all listen to the most progressive end of the bluegrass spectrum" says Armerding, a newspaperman in his day gig. "(People like) Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Mark O'Connor, Tim O'Brien etc. In addition, Bill Henry listens to rock and jazz guitar players like Steve Morse. Jake and I listen quite a bit to people like John Hiatt, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Vince Gill, David Mallett, Cheryl Wheeler, Paul Simon, Bela Fleck etc. Mike listens to all kinds of rock and jazz, and Chris Miles (our new bass player) is a former Christian rock band player, who is heavily influenced by Yes and various other "art rock" bands."

Jake is the newest member of the group, having joined in 1992.

While most young men his age are drawn to rock music, loud guitars and the like, he is a fabulous fiddle player.

Asked if there was any "generation gap" between Jake and the rest of the group. "(There) doesn't seem to be so far" his father says. "He (Jake) and Bill, in particular, do some great arranging and are very much on the same musical wave length. He is, however, starting to write quite a bit of his own music, which is a bit more in the folk direction, so I expect as he goes off to college and gets together with people his own age, he'll probably develop an identity a bit more distinct from the rest of us. I think part of the reason is that he is so musical that he's drawn to 'real' music, from classical to jazz to rock. It's not that he doesn't like rock as much as that he's not impressed by volume alone."

The band began about 20 years ago as a bluegrass bar band, How Banks Fail.

As Northern Lights, they released two albums in 1976 and 1983.

Their first national break came in 1986 when they finished third in a best new bluegrass band contest behind 15-year-old Alison Krauss.

A few years later, they signed to Flying Fish Records. The band released three albums with Flying Fish, "Take You to the Sky" in 1990, "Can't Buy Your Way" in 1992 and "Wrong Highway Blues" in 1994.

Krauss played on "Take You To The Sky." "She had her 18th birthday on one of the days of the session," Armerding says. "We knew her fairly well at the time, and she was quite cooperative, quite down-to-earth and yet clearly had a sense of what she wanted to do. That came through at the session, where she was pretty happy with what she did on one tune right away and took a couple of hours with another one. She was also very willing to take suggestions as well, although I didn't have a whole lot to tell her about improving things. I thought she was very musically intelligent about what she brought to the songs."

Flying Fish was eventually bought by Rounder Records. Northern Lights then switched labels earlier this year.

What's ahead for Northern Lights?

"A platinum album, we hope," Armerding says. "But seriously, we do hope to keep doing what we're doing, with a bit more of a national profile. Perhaps if we were at this level and were all 25, we'd all be itching to go on the road. But with families, the road for bluegrass musicians means you'd sort of see your kids grow up via postcard, and none of us want to do that."

"So we hope to continue to improve our songwriting and arranging, to make our shows more professional and entertaining, and to be the best weekend bluegrass band in the country. Just a couple of modest goals."