The latest studio offering from bluegrass five-piece Blue Mafia, Hanging Tree, continues mining the same rich vein that’s spawned two previous studio releases and a bevy of successful live appearances. Blue Mafia works in a firmly established musical tradition, but they also possess the capabilities to transform tradition into uniquely personal statements and their musicianship is second to none. This Midwestern based outfit draws deeply from the waters of bluegrass, but they are able to exert a personal touch and bring original material to bear that sets them apart from the many acts who treat their performances as much more of a tribute to tradition than a continuation. Bluegrass, in Blue Mafia’s hands, isn’t a butterfly longing to be pinned under glass as a museum piece. Instead, bluegrass is a living, breathing thing in the hands of Blue Mafia while still promoting songwriting that does much more than merely embrace those traditions – it revitalizes them for a new generation.
They first look to the past. “Like a Mining Man” sounds like it is ripped from the bluegrass scene circa 1938 and replanted in 2017. The band’s talents for invoking the genre’s rich history and connection to the working poor without ever coming off as studied or heavy-handed is quite an achievement, but to make these time-tested elements sound completely modern is another thing entirely. This performance is recorded with such warmth and fidelity that it sounds like they are playing mere feet away. “Hanging Tree” has considerably more atmospherics working its favor thanks to playing and a musical arrangement that goes to great pains attempting to summon a mood. The efforts are successful. Dara Wray’s voice dovetails perfectly into the musical framework and “Hanging Tree” reaches rarefied heights only a few tracks reach on this album. “Sweet Mary of the Mountains” revisits the same rustic charm powering the opener and the chorus, specifically, is a high point in the piece when everything rises a notch. Changing up their vocal approach throughout the release is an excellent idea; Blue Mafia has three strong singers and incorporating their various talents into the songwriting makes for a better album.
“With Body & Soul” is a traditional tune Blue Mafia lifts to stratospheric heights thanks to the sheer glee behind every verse and note. They make even these classic covers sound part and parcel of their overall approach and this song is a virtual primer on how traditional minded acts can take old material and put an individualistic stamp on their interpretation. Dara Wray’s vocals lead the way on “Baby, You’re Gone” and the bluish tinge to this track makes it stand out so later in the album. “Loneliness and Desperation” mines the form’s more serious thematic concerns with the stark poetry so common to traditional material while the songs “You Belong With Me” and closer “Who Are You” have surprising hints of commercialism nibbling along their edges. Hanging Tree is a powerful outing for this Indiana band and there are further solidifying their standing as one of the nation’s best bluegrass outfits.
by Lydia Hillenburg