It is fitting that Weeds in the Ballast, the eagerly awaited first release from Moonshine Falls, is a love story on nine tracks. The multi-talented principals of this New York City bluegrass band, Dave McKeon and Mary Noecker, are sweethearts. Weeds in the Ballast is a tribute not only to their romance and ensemble, but to their love of traditional, skillfully performed bluegrass music.
McKeon is a virtuoso mandolinist—he can play the dang thing backwards, holding it up behind his head. I have witnessed this feat, and can testify that his picking is equally remarkable backwards or forwards. He is also an excellent guitarist and vocalist who pours passion into every note. The titular Weeds in the Ballast is McKeon’s original train song, bound to stir sentiments of anyone who remembers simpler times.
Another McKeon original, “Sweet Annie Mae,” could be mistaken for traditional, in its joyful celebration of a fiancée who says, “yes.” Sweet Annie, with her driving mandolin and banjo tracks—intercepted playfully by fiddle—begins the album with verve. Listeners are immediately uplifted into a buoyant bluegrass frame of mind that lasts until the last note.
Noecker plays standup bass, and has blossomed into a rich, melodic vocalist. Her songs are among the album’s most memorable, or those that get happily stuck in a listener’s mind most easily. Her sensitive tone inflects the traditional “Are you Tired of Me, My Darling” with new warmth and resilience. Nobody could tire of such a clean and perky sound. Her rendition of “Steel Rails” is a pleasing alto counterpart to Alison Krauss’s more trilling soprano cut on her Union Square album.
The finale of Moonshine Falls, suitably titled “Happy Endings,” is sung by Dave and Mary in unison, accompanied by Dave’s simple guitar—except for one very affecting acapella phrase. What happens between “Sweet Annie Mae” and “Happy Endings” is the nutty stuff of life and traditional Bluegrass territory: guilt and mischief, betrayals and confessions, taking the blame (“I’ll Take the Blame”) and stepping into trouble (“I’ll Go Stepping Too”), train rides and abandoned stations (“Weeds in the Ballast”).
And of course no bluegrass set is complete without an instrumental. On track four we are treated to McKeon’s arrangement of the traditional fiddle tune “Big Sciota”—equally brisk and sentimental, wherein all instruments take a turn leading. Arrangements throughout Weeds in the Ballast are particularly thoughtful, reflecting good use of every sound. Buoying the lead couple in most numbers is a high-caliber medley of fiddle, banjo, backup vocals, dobro—Matt Combs, Tim Carter, and Smith Curry, respectively. Their delightful picking and bowing straight from Nashville clinches the “grassy essence” of this debut CD.
If I were to say anything to Weeds in the Ballast, as an entirety, I would quote its penultimate song title: “I Wouldn’t Change You if I Could.” In our age of cynicism and constant whining, the lyrical sound and direct emotion of an upbeat bluegrass album like Weeds is welcome and delicious—a happy ending and new beginning in which I can believe.
(Read on No Depression’s website HERE)
No Depression Magazine Contributing Writer
July, 19 2016.
Dang! What can you say about a band that has it all? Superb playing, gorgeous harmonies, a fine-honed polish that comes with years of playing, and a youthful exuberance that comes from a love of the music?
The core of Moonshine Falls, a HVBA Member Band, is Mary Noecker (bass and vocals) and Dave McKeon (mandolin, guitar, and vocals). Although they have only been Moonshine Falls since 2013 both have a solid bluegrass history behind them.
In the "latest history" they have been playing at both the famed Joe Val Festival in Framingham MA and the Wilmington Winter Bluegrass Festival in Delaware. Not to mention upcoming shows in Germany and the Netherlands, and more locally on Long Island.
Their Weeds In The Ballast debut showcases two of their original songs and some fine covers. The title song shows their strong grounding in the upstate NY "rust belt" of disused rail lines and empty factories, a traditional hard times song that would truly be at home any place that has run into hard times. And doesn't every bluegrass album deserve a railroad and hobo song?
"Sweet Annie Mae" is the other traditional sounding original, this time about love, with a bluegrass swing and a joyful lilt. How can you make a song sound so familiar that you swear you've heard it before, and at the same time make it sound so new and fresh? That takes real songwriting talent accompanied by true musicianship, and it certainly works for "Sweet Annie Mae."
The rest of the album assembles well chosen, perfectly fitting covers, "Steel Rails" and "I'll Go Stepping Too" will ring familiar. "Are You Tired Of Me My Darling" and "I Wouldn't Change You If I Could" would be right at home at the OLD Grand Ol' Opry, and" We Believe In Happy Endings" is the highlight of the harmony highlights.
From the band's notes their goal is to pay homage to tradition without drowning it in, balancing tradition with the New Blue movement. One listen to this album will convince you that they nailed that balance in all the best ways!
(Read on HVBA website HERE)
Review by Mark Husdon of the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Assoc. April, 2016