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Songs from the vintage playground

Andrew Harley

The trio that makes up Dave Johnston’s, of Yonder Mountain String Band, side project Swingset creates a throwback, social hour atmosphere at State Bridge on Sunday at 4:20 p.m.Swingset plays ragtime and new acoustic music that evokes a feeling of a classical string band, according to Johnston. And, the group seems to prefer a small crowd of”It’s really challenging. It’s really fun music to play. It’s banjo- and guitar-based, so it’s pretty different (from the 1930s and 40s music its based on) in that regard,” said Johnston.Though Swingset has rehearsed some tunes with lyrics, but they haven’t performed one live.”Our sound seems to be taking a lot of inspiration from the late 1920s through the 40s,” said Johnston. “There’s a Charley Christian, Glen Miller kind of thing, a few be-bop tunes.”Among the original tunes Swingset plays, lies a slew of vintage covers, including some Charlie Parker songs, Thumbs Carlyle, Miles Davis – songs like “Green Dolphin Street” – and Sonny Rollins – “Softly as a Morning Sunrise.””There’s some covers, for sure, but me and John have been putting together some songs. It seems almost unfair to say that we really wrote them individually,” said Johnston. “We put them together sitting in the living room with the pen and the paper out.”Johnston picks a swingin’ banjo, John Ridnell plays guitar and Will Downs plays the upright bass.Ridnell and Johnston have played together for a few years on a friendship basis and they decided last July that they wanted to take their discoveries on tour.”John’s really well-versed in jazz, and is currently studying with some pretty heavy jazz dudes,” said Johnston.Downs also plays with the Single Malt Band, which is based in Boulder. “He’s a good friend of ours. He’s kind of a local Boulder bass-player guy who’s really good. And, he expressed some interest in playing some gigs,” said Johnston. “So, he was pretty much on board when we decided we were going to do it.”Unfortunately, Downs won’t be able to make it to the State Bridge show, but Ridnell and Johnston have come up with a replacement.

“His name is Kevin. I don’t know his last name, but apparently he’s a monster,” said Johnston. “We’re kind of an informal band. We kind of put things together as they come along instead of having a real plan of attack, or anything like that. It’s a good way to play different kinds of music.”The group is passionate about the type of music its making, and Johnston is excited about the contrast it provides him from the bluegrass jams of Yonder Mountain String Band.Swingset seems to prefer a small crowd – around 60 people – because the style of music they play shines among a respectful audience.”It’s something we’ll continue to do. It’s definitely not like rock and roll. It doesn’t really have the volume or even the style of that vibe to it,” said Johnston. “It’s more like social hour music than a concert or an event, and we all take it very seriously.”Swingset have discussed recording an album, but no dates have been set yet.Johnston has been able to get this group together partly because of his part in the rising popularity of bluegrass music. Johnston and Yonder Mountain String Band combine classic bluegrass with the exploratory nature of jam, and the band has been successful in attracting hordes of new fans to a traditional genre.”I just want people to reminded that acoustic music and acoustic-based music is a really vibrant form that is out there. And, personally, I want to bring that really great banjo sound and lyrics and music to more people. I want to do it in a way that’s organic and not compromised,” said Johnston. “It’s a big deal for us (Yonder) to continue to bring acoustic-based, bluegrass-based music to people. And if we’re the first band they’ve ever heard where they all of a sudden enjoyed bluegrass … finally – or realized what it was or got turned on to what it was – and went out and got into it as a historical music form that’s been around since rock and roll, then we’re really happy to do that.”If Swingset, too, can get people to start paying attention to like, you know, ‘Who’s Jelly Roll Morton? What the hell’s that?’ If people can start thinking about the musical heritage that became highlighted in the 40s that was more of an amalgamation of our society and our country – as reflected through music. The more people realize how important music is to our society and America in general, then maybe a deeper appreciation for all kinds of things can happen. It’s kind of a grandiose thing, I understand, but it’s one of those mediums that has the ability to affect lots of people.”And, as is apparent with Swingset, Johnston is a devout preservationist of roots music, and remains passionate about music in general.”There’s so much room for improvement, and there’s so many players that I’ve been listening to that have a real lyricality to their improvisations – it’s not just chops. I’m trying to play melodies, maybe that no one’s ever heard before, but playing it with the feeling you’d play an old chestnut with,” said Johnston. “Trying to add a lyrical quality to what I’m doing, and trying to relax and have a good time. These are the kinds of things that are keeping me busy right now.”Johnston and Swingset play State Bridge on Sunday at 4:20 p.m. Tickets cost $10, and can be purchased online at http://www.statebridge.com.Andrew Harley can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext.610, or at aharley@vaildaily.com.


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