Jeff & Vida give Bluegrass a new voice
Written by By COLE CHRISTENSEN/Sentinel Staff Writer   
Wednesday, 25 August 2010 10:16
Jeff Burke and Vida Wakeman have been a musical partnership for over a decade, and in that time they have explored a variety of classic American music sounds, from honky-tonk to straight-ahead country to blues. But one genre in particular has provided the foundation to their musical approach, omnipresent and slowly culminating into their current and most focused sound.
Some musicians talk about a particular moment, concert or album that triggered a great musical epiphany that formed the rest of the musical career. For Jeff and Vida that moment came at the quintessential bluegrass music festival, Merle Fest.
“Neither of us grew up in bluegrass. We came at it pretty late,” Burke said in a recent telephone interview. “We went to Merle Fest and this light bulb went off in our head that we should play together. We started going to festivals and hearing it live, which to me is a whole other way to hear the genre.”
But, if bluegrass is the foundation of their musical approach, they are certainly putting their own stamp on it.
On the first track of their latest album “Selma Chalk,” Jeff and Vida have every inkling of a traditional bluegrass band from the outset.
A five-string banjo and mandolin hit the ground running, backed by a driving, distinctive bluegrass rhythm. Then Wakeman starts singing and instantly the listener is in different territory.
With a voice that evokes the best of classic country, blues, rockabilly and soul, she is far from the more well-known, Alison Krauss-like, bluegrass sound.
And, that is a critical element to their success in a crowded contemporary bluegrass market, combing straight-ahead instrumental talent with the distinctive impact of a unique lead singer.
“Her voice is one of the most unique things about the music,” Burke said. “To me it is really unique and it has a lot of range and emotion in it. It is not your standard bluegrass voice.”
Historically Jeff and Vida have focused on performing as a duo, averaging more than 200 dates a year around the country since they first started performing together in New Orleans. However, following a move from New Orleans to Nashville, they have expanded their line-up and their sound from duo alt-country format to five-piece bluegrass band.
“Selma Chalk” was their first full-length, bluegrass-focused album, indicative of a sound that they now prefer to take on the road, not only for the contributions of their fellow musicians, but also for the fullness of sound that a five-piece band brings to the stage.
While they still perform as duo, the impact of including three additional musicians with solid pedigrees in classic bluegrass has been significant, taking Jeff and Vida’s long-standing penchant for bluegrass songwriting and harmonies to new horizons.
“We knew we wanted to record with that instrumentation,” Burke said. “In the past we have taken an approach were we would not be afraid to do different instrumentations on different songs. This time we decided to use the same instrumentation on all of the songs.
“We also liked the idea of having a record that was sonically centered,” he added. “That is what really brings it together and it is easier to consistently produce on stage.”
Last Updated on Wednesday, 25 August 2010 10:23

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