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Uncle Earl lets the good vibe out

Club Passim, Cambridge, Mass., March 12, 2007

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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With only hours to go until the release of "Waterloo, Tennessee," the all-female old time music group Uncle Earl was clearly in an upbeat mood before a sold-out crowd. Yet, there has to be more than the ability to display a quick wit and be cheery to make for an effective outing, but Uncle Earl displayed that and far more.

Most likely, that could be attributed to a batch of excellent songs with the quartet plus one touring musician playing many songs from the new disc, their second for Rounder and third overall.

When old time music comes to mind, the description is ultra heavy on droning strings and seemingly little diversity. But Uncle Earl should never plead guilty to that. There is a brightness to the musicianship and singing. To the band's credit, this a group in the true sense of the word - there is no real leader or standout performer. That's not a knock because they're all real good.

Abigail Washburn is probably the best singer of the quartet with a powerful voice, and she mixes it up on the banjo. She also used her Chinese skills on "Streak O' Lean, Streak O' Fat," a cultural mash-up of Chinese and string music.

KC Groves is an adept mandolin player who takes fewer turns on vocals, but also knows how to put a song across. Rayna Gellert is an excellent fiddler player - she often pushes the songs along - and probably not quite as strong vocally as her compadres, but she is no slouch either, somewhat recalling Gillian Welch.

Kristin Andreassen brings a lot to the table. Mainly playing acoustic guitar, she owns a very charming, winning personality that comes through time and again with a keen sense of humor. And she also sings quite well, not to mention adding a whole other dimension by clogging, which she did on two songs. Andreassen sang a funny song, "Crayola," which is a finalist in the John Lennon songwriting contest now underway. Doing it sans instruments, Uncle Earl members did paddy cakes to set the beat. Offbeat, humorous and real good.

On this tour, Mary Lucey of the North Carolina band the Biscuit Burners, helped on upright bass and did a good job there as well.

Sometimes they would gather around the mic on the small stage and do it a capella to fine effect. They even gave a history lesson with "Bony on the Isle of St. Helena," amazingly one of two songs about Bonaparte on the CD.

Uncle Earl is serious about their musicianship - okay, they had a slight misstep or two and had to restart a song - and do a fine job there, but it's the total package that makes them winners. They can sing, play and know how to have a rollicking good time themselves with a few funny stories to engage the crowd.

Band members counted down the hours to the release of "Waterloo, Tennessee." With good reason because those who were at the show should also run out to get the CD and let the good vibes of Uncle Earl linger awhile longer.