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It's all relative for The Howlin' Brothers

Cambridge, mass., Atwood's Tavern, May 25, 2014

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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The crowd may not have been all that large relatively speaking - 100 or so - but that was enough to pack the most intimate of clubs for the string band- and bluegrass-based trio The Howlin' Brothers.

Nestled in a covered corner, the Brothers, who are not related, were more than up to the task, touting a brand new CD, "Trouble."

Of course, they played a good chunk of it, and while the CD is strong, the Howlin's brought it alive even more in two hour or so long sets. The cornerstones of the music are a string-band sound, hearkening back to the music of the '20s and '30s, and bluegrass.

The Howlin' Brothers, who met at Ithaca College and now are now based in Nashville, are dexterous musically. They avoided the ultra-repetitive sound of many string bands by, instead, using alternative instrumentation to enhance, layer and build the sounds and songs.

While string band- and bluegrass-based (covering "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," "Sally Goodin" and Doc Watson's "Train That Carried My Girl from Town"), The Howlin' Brothers also ventured into blues ("Hard Times"), Zydeco ("Monroe"), country ("World Spinning Round") and even what was billed by the band as the first bluegrass reggae song, "Love." It sounded way out of context on the "Trouble," but worked much better live.

There clearly was far more than enough going on musically for The Howlin' Brothers to avoid being accused of sameness of sound. Green occasionally played harmonica, while Plasse mainly was on upright bass, but occasionally played guitar. At one point, a guest guitarist from the crowd helped flesh out the sound even more. And while one of the three Howlin's took lead vocals, backing vocals and harmonies often were part of the equation.

Ian Craft was the de facto leader of the band with his muscular, engaging playing on slide banjo, fiddle and occasional kick drum and beating his hands against his banjo for further drum-like sounds to give an added toughness. The burly, bearded Craft also is a good singer with a drawl even though he hails from the Ithaca, N.Y. area.

All three brothers sang with Craft taking the lion's share. Green and Plasse had their opportunities with the locally-born Plasse (he's from nearby Lexington and had a crowd of supporters on hand) having some difficulty hitting low notes on a few songs, including "Troubled Waltz." But he picked it up the night wore on, and the diversity of singers works to the band's advantage.

The size of the crowd may have been relative, but the music was not. It was all real good.