Take four seasoned musicians; mix in acoustic and electric instruments; flavor with country, bluegrass, blues, and rock; serve with clear, lilting vocals and close harmonies. It's a recipe for down-home, rootsy music, and Grievous Angel knows how to cook. In addition to strong original tunes, this band's live sets cover the likes of the Band, the Grateful Dead, Little Feat, Johnny Cash, and Fred Neil with skill and obvious pleasure. These musicians simply play well together, holding themselves to a high aesthetic standard while drawing from rich, traditional music that is equally at home in the bar, in the concert hall, or on the back porch.
You couldn't ask for much more talent in a southeast Michigan combo. All full-time professional musicians, the members of Grievous Angel have proven themselves in other well-respected local groups as well as with national acts - including Was (Not Was), Wilson Pickett, Indigo Girls, and Earl Klugh - and as music producers (for local recording artists as well as the television show Backstage Pass).
Drummer Ron Pangborn, who looks rather like a calm professor onstage, deserves up-front attention for laying just the right foundation. He doesn't overplay, but he knows where to add a little flair, how to turn it up a notch, and when to let off and leave us breathless. Nolan Mendenhall keeps the rhythm section in the pocket with his careful but never boring bass line.
Layered into this mix is the expert guitar picking of Billy Brandt, a fuzzy bear with a graying beard and a tangle of thick hair, and the tuneful mandolin or high lonesome fiddle of bright-eyed, boyish David Mosher (who can even play a dazzling electric guitar solo when given the chance). Brandt and Mosher are responsible for most of the band's originals, and they trade off lead vocals regularly, offering a satisfying contrast between Brandt's rich, rugged style and Mosher's clean, country twang. In most numbers, Mendenhall lends his voice to
three-part harmonies that weave together tighter than a farmhouse rug.
On its new self-titled CD, Grievous Angel celebrates its countrified sound with the vibrant polish of studio production. The original tunes are structured like the songs that influenced them; they feel as comfortable as an old pair of shoes. Stories of love and loss, ramblin', farm life, and poverty pay homage to familiar country themes, although the lyrics are, for the most part, generic, by-the-numbers lines. With the talent dripping off Grievous Angel's instruments, I was expecting a bit more clever or poetic turns of phrase.
The single instrumental number, "Rags to Ragas," hints at a more adventurous songwriting potential with its looser jam, more complex rhythms, and pinch of Indian spice. Perhaps letting more of that wild wind come through in future compositions will also encourage a deeper reach for words. These musicians can't help but get better. They're already so darn good.
Grievous Angel is at Top of the Park on Sunday, June 19.
[Originally published in June, 2005.]