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Folk club provides no barriers for Chatham County Line

Club Passim, Cambridge, Mass., April 10, 2008

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Chandler Holt, banjo player for Chatham County Line, admitted after the show that he was a bit concerned about playing at Club Passim. After all, this was renowned for decades as a folk club, and his band's style of bluegrass was not exactly part of the regular mix at the cozy club.

No matter for CCL because they turned in an excellent performance based on a slew of well put together songs, musicianship and singing.

The Raleigh, N.C.-based band (the group met as students at North Carolina State) is touring behind the Chris Stamey-produced "IV" (Yep Roc), a bluegrass-based CD, and fortunately played most of it. Yet, on CD as in concert, it's not exactly traditional bluegrass even though they gather around a single microphone. Dave Wilson delivers forceful vocals without overdoing it. Bedecked in suit and tie, the guy has a lot of timbre in his voice. His is not the high, lonesome style of bluegrass. CCL's sound is more in the realm of maybe Old Crow Medicine Show, but better, or The Avett Brothers, but not as loud or hyperkinetic.

When it comes to entertaining, Wilson is a good front man too. He is humorous, even in the almost dull, annoying task of asking people to buy their merchandise and enjoys interplay with other band members as part of the entertainment value.

As for his band mates, they are very solid. John Teer on mandolin and fiddle kicked in backing vocals to good effect throughout the 70-minute show. Holt's banjo playing spiced many songs, and Greg Readling was strong on standup bass as well.

While many songs are about love or the problems thereof, CCL got political with "Birmingham Jail" about the 1963 bombing of a church there with a lot of fiddle from Teer. That's what makes CCL and the concert so enjoyable - while they weren't genre jumpers, they also changed it up sufficiently throughout to easily keep from lapsing into dullsville - just the opposite actually. They went from the slow and spare "Coming Home" to "Birmingham Jail" to their only instrumental of the night, "Paige," to "Whipping Boy," which Holt wrote and sang with a bluesy feel to the vocals. Later, in the first song of the encore, they opened with the louder, but lively "Let It Rock."

Passim's may tend to go for a quieter feel, at least in its past, but Chatham County line was more than up to the task of making their style come alive.

Jenee Halstead, a Spokane, Wash. transplant now living in the Boston area, opened as part of a CD release show. She had a good amount of enthusiastic fans there as a result. Halstead's strength is that she is a very fine vocalist with a pretty voice. She used it to good effect during her stint.

Her backing band tended to be more mood enhancers than kicking it hard. This was certainly not a well-rehearsed outfit. And Halstead clearly could use more stage presence. She pretty much had nothing to say between songs and engaged in small talk with her band instead of the audience.