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Uncle Earl is the complete package

Johnny D's, Somerville, Mass., July 28, 2005

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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It would be easy to dismiss Uncle Earl on the face of it as a novelty act. But that would do a tremendous disservice to the all-female bluegrass band that knows a thing or two apparently about stage presence, singing, sharing the spotlight and playing.

Uncle Earl - it's not clear where the name came from exactly - just released their debut, "She Waits for Night," on Rounder in mid-July to much praise.

But like many fine bands, they actually were stronger in concert before a very crowded club that apparently was onto this group before they hit the stage and certainly thereafter.

The group is comprised of a few ace players - mandolinist K.C. Groves, who has released a few albums on her own, and fiddler Rayna Gellert. With Abigail Washburn on banjo, Kristin Andreassen on acoustic guitar and a substitute bass player Alana Rocklin (regular Sharon Gilchrest was playing with Tony Rice and Peter Rowan in California), this was one strong unit musically.

They played several instrumentals during their two-set, 90-minute show, always sparkling.

Gellert is a standout, often spearheading or spicing the songs. The energy level certainly increased when Gellert was the musical focal point. Groves is a bit more subdued, but also gives the music - mainly bluegrass, but with touches of old time and to a much lesser extent mountain music - much bite.

Andreassen took on most of the vocals, though the three other regulars all contributed.

And that may be a good decision. She does not rush songs, playing out the songs for what they are worth. She is a very strong presence though. Andreassen possesses a good sense of humor, joking about Washburn's "big hair" and that of other band members - they couldn't quite return the favor since she sported the lone hat in the group.

Andreassen demonstrated another talent as well - clogging, which she did on two songs to fine effect, although the board beneath her moved a lot the first time around.

One of the strengths of Uncle Earl is that the band does not depend on any one member singing. There is enough talent in the group to share the spotlight.

Washburn, who has her own solo disc coming out in August on Nettwerk, sang one song from her album in Mandarin Chinese. It sounds weirder than it actually proved to be as the song maintained a bluegrass sound throughout with a Chinese influence as well.

The songs come from different sources. Gellart, for example, found "Willie Taylor," an old Irish ballad, but converted it to the band's old time style.

Andreassen wrote "Pale Moon," which opened the second set, a quieter song about a shy girl.

Whre the songs originated did not matter all that much since Uncle Earl did everything justice.

Make no mistake about it, Uncle Earl is the complete package.