Brothers John and James Abrams, joined by their cousin Elijah, come from Kingston, Ontario. All rather adorable teenagers, they started out very young playing bluegrass music, follow-ing three previous generations of musicians in the family. Their mastery of the Stanley Brothers and the like was impressive, but it was the kind of child-prodigy stuff that left you wondering if they could go deeper. It turns out they can. Their new album, Blue on Brown, with electric instruments, is billed as a tribute to the music of Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie, and it’s something quite well thought out and unexpected.
When they decided to do the album, says John, “that really opened up the passageways for us to bring bluegrass into some other forms of music.” The sentence is slippery in the fertile way that indicates new thinking is going on: does it mean that bluegrass is being carried forward, or that bluegrass is being incorporated into newer genres? The Abrams brothers are neither simply “covering” Dylan and Guthrie nor flavoring rock with bluegrass instruments in the way that Americana bands and folk-rock bands have done. Nor are they “updating” these classic songs for a new generation, although nobody has really done them this way before.
Instead, they are claiming Dylan and Guthrie as traditional music in the best sense: as music that each generation must re-create anew. More rigorously than Gandalf Murphy & the Slam-bovian Circus of Dreams and the other bands that have drawn on the 1960s well lately, they avoid nostalgia. They sing not like Dylan, not like rockers, but like themselves. They perform “City of New Orleans,” “Shelter from the Storm,” and Dylan’s gospel-inflected “You Gotta Serve Somebody” (gospel has been part of the Abrams family background) with a flexible ensem-ble including fiddle, mandolin, and banjo, but also at various times pedal steel guitar, electric guitar, other stringed instruments, percussion, and touches of vintage keyboards like the Clav-inet. The ensemble allows a range of references to the roots forms that underlay the music of Dylan and Guthrie themselves but that isn’t precisely like any that existed in the 1960s and 1970s. With the brother harmonies and duo instrumental work of John and James as a closely synchronized core, the music branches off in flexible, organic ways.
You wouldn’t think it was possible to do a fresh version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” at this point, but try it out at the Abrams Brothers show at the Ark on Tuesday, May 19, and you’ll be surprised. The smoking, toking crowds that went to hear Dylan and Arlo in the 1960s may not have thought they were hearing songs that would be taken as cultural touchstones by fresh-faced young Canadians forty years later, but that’s exactly how it’s worked out.