Album Review of
Steppin' in the Boiler House

Written by Joe Ross
May 23, 2014 - 12:00am EDT
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With a very nice combination of both boisterous and some more restrained music, Mark Schatz' second solo album demonstrates the great discipline that this purveyor of neo-traditonalism has. Best known as a bass player (he won IBMA's 1994 and 1995 bass player of the year awards), Schatz is also at the top of the game with his proficient clawhammer banjo technique of striking downward on the strings with the back of one's fingers or nails. Generically also called "frailing," the result is what Pete Seeger once called a "bumm-titty bumm-titty" rhythm in his book on how to play the 5-string banjo. When you bring your thumb in to start picking a string other than the fifth to squeeze in additional eighth notes, then you technically get "clawhammer" or "double-thumb frailing." 

Whatever you want to call the playing, the eclectic Mark Schatz (now in Nashville by way of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts) has created a set of affable music that deeply taps his many roots and personal experiences. For example, Mark's first band was a folk dance group called Mandala, and the accomplished dancer serves as musical director for the dance troupe Footworks and even performed in 1996 with the Riverdance show. For a musician of his caliber to so fully understand the dance tradition results in the music being that much more cohesive and in touch with its roots. Lively numbers like "Stay All Night," "Rig Root" and "Last Gold Dollar" will definitely put spirit into your feet. The latter features Tim O'Brien's mandolin and vocals. Beautifully expressive moments are captured in waltzes like "Black Mountain Aire" and "Eileen's Waltz." 

Schatz has also played bass with contemporary and stellar bluegrass, new acoustic, and Americana acts like Tasty Licks, Spectrum, Tony Rice Unit, Bluegrass Album Band, Tim and Mollie O'Brien, and Nickel Creek. Thus, this album taps his experiences to give us an evocative score, both earthy and ethereal. "Cajun Stomp" captures a natural born earthiness. Near the mid-point of the set, "Season of Joy" transports us breezily into a more reflective mood. The title cut, "Steppin' in the Boilerhouse," establishes an alluring, almost funky, groove in the piece that was originally composed to inspire some cloggers. Mark's hambone break is a brilliant and witty ending to the piece.

A stylistic departure into high-stepping and melodic newgrassy territory features Tim O'Brien's mandolin and Jerry Douglas' Dobro on "Calgary." Accompanying Schatz on all tracks are Missy Raines (bass), Jim Hurst (guitar), and Casey Driessen (fiddle). They're rock solid, given plenty of chances to shine, they all display virtuoso acoustic musicianship. Hurst sings "The Devil's Game," a song with blues and rock foundations that establishes a nice groove. Stuart Duncan (fiddle) and Bela Fleck (mandolin) also make some fine appearances on the CD. Some of you may remember that Schatz, O'Brien, Douglas, and banjoist Charlie Cushman had a just-for-fun band in 1998 called "The Flatt Heads." So I feel that another strength here is that the artists' long aquaintance and enduring friendships translate into warm, conversational musical arrangements. 

I've heard the clawhammer-style of banjo also referred to, in some local or regional contexts, as rapping, beating, thumping, knocking, flailing, trashing, clubbing or even gun-hammer. Schatz's wildly thrilling ride shows us this technique are all these and more, especially when he presents more melancholic or contemporary moods on a self-penned piece like "The Falling Waters of Arden." To truly describe Mark Schatz' inspired banjo-playing and music, I think I'll simply defer to how Uncle Dave Macon described the technique ... racking, rocking, whomping. I'd merely say that Schatz really knows how to "frame the banjo." (Joe Ross)