The Leveetoppers- "Fishtown Stomp" Album Review
The Leveetoppers 2017 release, “Fishtown Stomp” kicks off with an energy that, as a listener, I couldn’t help but want to dance to. Fiddler Lyle Werner has a knack for picking those tunes that draw you in from the first listen, and opening track, “Muddy Weather”, is no exception. It’s the kind of tune that the whole way through has you waiting in delighted anticipation for the next A-part to roll around. As the album progresses we’re lead through a wide range of tunes, both familiar and obscure, with a smattering of songs thrown in for good measure. The album does not disappoint- from Hank Williams, to Sacred Harp, to original tunes, and all the while paying tribute to old fiddlers from North Carolina, Kentucky, and Missouri, it’s a satisfyingly varied musical journey. But let’s not give all the credit to the tune choice! Behind those driving rhythms and soaring melodies are three highly skilled and engaging players whose musical collaboration is well-worth a good listen.
From what I can tell, Lyle Werner’s fiddle playing is a true extension of Lyle as human being- clever, sincere, and grinning from ear to ear. Lyle manages to capture the mournful bay of a world-weary old timer caught in the dancing shoes of a young ruffian about to set off on a great and possibly naive adventure. There’s something immediately and lastingly compelling about that artful balance of knowing resignation and eager, youthful wonder.
“I like the idea of old time music as a flexible, inclusive genre that values both source recordings and individualized interpretations of tunes.” says Werner, listing some of his favorite old time fiddlers in no particular order as Ed Haley, Emmett Lundy, Ernie Carpenter, Albert Hash, Clark Kessinger, Clyde Davenport, Marion Reese, Jim Bowles, Carlton Rawlings, The Nations Brothers, Marcus Martin, and Manco Sneed. “I suppose I tend toward the notier players, especially if they tend to improvise a little. I love an inventive fiddler who keeps you on your toes.”
If this album is any indication, Lyle is making is own contribution to this fine lineage of fiddling. Lyle’s playing is both old and new, cheering you through the hard times with a wink and a smile.
Sasha Hsuczyk has exactly the voice you want to hear singing old time music- honest, concise, and completely disarming. Listening to her sing, it’s as if with measured, careful mastery, she’s revealing a small and tender section of her soul, setting it plainly on the kitchen table like a slice of freshly-baked apple pie. Her voice has the calloused hands of a woman you would not want to find yourself up against in a fight, and at once she stands with the unapologetic strength of a person unafraid to share moments of true hope- fragile, unguarded and deeply human. Her interpretation of Sacred Harp song, “Distress (The Lovely Blooming Flower)” is truly stunning. Combine all this with her driving, responsive, always-in-the-pocket guitar playing, and you have yourself one formidable musician.
Andy McLeod on banjo does just what banjo does best. Flitting around the fiddle lines in an unassuming way that feels sweet and spontaneous, Andy brings a relaxed, dependable playfulness to the album. He holds down the bones of each tune, at once unafraid to throw in an occasional chromatic run or up-the-neck inversion. Though Andy has since moved on from the Leveetoppers to focus on his solo work, he definitely leaves his mark on this album in the title track, “Fishtown Stomp”, a solo finger-style guitar tune which he wrote and performed. “Fishtown Stomp” really ties together this old time-based record with some of the ragtime and blues influence of the Leveetoppers’ home city of New Orleans.
Speaking of New Orleans- while old-time music might not be the first thing you’d think of in the city’s immensely rich cultural history, there has been a growing scene in recent years. Says Werner, “The New Orleans old time scene has grown rapidly over the eight years since I moved here. It went from a handful of people to a large enough number that to fit all the players in one house might be a challenge.”
In many ways, New Orleans is a unique and ideal spot to keep the old time tradition of cross-genre collaboration alive and well. The old time scene weaves classic southern Appalachian tunes with regional fiddling styles from Georgia and Mississippi, with ragtime, and a healthy dose of jug band and blues fiddling. And, should you find yourself in town, there’s a large monthly square dance at a church uptown as well as lots of informal kitchen sessions to try out your new favorite tunes with some great players.
Much like their hometown, the Leveetoppers are changing and growing. With their current line-up of Lyle Werner, Sasha Hsuczyk, and newcomer Mikey Collins on banjo, there is great potential for some great tunes on the horizon! In the meantime, while you’re surviving the cold this winter, excitedly awaiting next summer’s festival season, “Fishtown Stomp” is sure to keep your heart warm and feet dancing!
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