Bluegrass and rough-edged blues, not to mention information about a great mid-July music festival happening in North Central Massachusetts, are in the Ear Bliss spotlight this week. Let’s get to it.
The Steel Wheels
“No More Rain”
Their base is the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, an area synonymous with the bluegrass music they play. For The Steel Wheels, it’s as good a pedigree for the country subgenre as it gets. “No More Rain” is the third release for the quartet and it demonstrates continued growth in all facets of the game for this highly worthy-of-ears band. The Steel Wheels have never been about pristine vocals and musicianship, qualities that all too often dilute the sound of so many bluegrass bands out there and in the end make too many of them indistinguishable. Rather, these Virginia boys are more about the songs which they dress up with tight and uncluttered instrumentation (the standard banjo, mandolin, bass and guitar) built around the gritty and soulful vocals of lead singer Trent Wagler. (Think of Wagler as sort of the Conway Twitty of bluegrass with his sometimes roughhewn and growly, but always deeply soulful delivery.) The band’s first two albums saw success beyond the bluegrass charts what with each spending time in the Americana Top 40 chart. It’s an indicator of their appeal and the fact they kick off “No More Rain” with a cover of a Tom Waits song (“Walk Away”) tells you this is not your ordinary bluegrass band. It’s an album first and foremost about the songs and there are a dozen good ones here. Recommended.
Visit www.thesteelwheels.com .
“Works and Days”
Soul Panther Records
Boston-based band The Tarbox Ramblers sprung onto the scene in the late 1990s with a primitive blues sound rooted deeply in the hill country of Mississippi and places nearby, but with a contemporary roots rock flare. Recording for Rounder Records, the band released two fine albums (“The Tarbox Ramblers” in 2000 and “A Fix Back East” from 2004) that mixed ragged roots rock toughness with blues and gospel and most importantly, melody. It was an odd blend, but was downright narcotic in its appeal. Oh yeah, each album also rocked like you would not believe. With the various original members dispersing to locales beyond the Bay State, it was pretty much all she wrote for the original TBRs. Front man and founder Michael Tarbox remained and continued to perform in various newfangled Tarbox Ramblers configurations, not to mention the occasional original band reunions, until going the solo route. “Works and Days” is his second release of all original material as a solo artist and it is every bit the glorious beast of those early Ramblers days. Blues, folk and ballads, “Works and Days” is an album that rocks with raw righteousness with the rough-hewn voice of Tarbox at the forefront and plenty of rootsy rhythms to drive the vehicle.
Visit the website www.michaeltarbox.com  for the complete scoop.
Did you drag your heals once again and get shut out of getting tickets for the Newport Folk Festival? Whereas it requires a bit of driving, the Green River Festival is an excellent alternative. Celebrating its 27th year and held annually in Greenfield, Mass. on the bucolic campus of Greenfield Community College (just under a comfy three-hour ride from these parts), it is both a balloon and music festival (with the latter clearly the draw). This year’s event happens the weekend of July 20-21 and the musical lineup is both solid and diverse with three stages of music running continuously throughout each day.
Saturday performers include Gogol Bordello, The Devil Makes Three, The Skatalites, JD McPherson, Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside, Jeffrey Foucault & Cold Satellite, Slaid Cleaves, The Bernie Worrell Orchestra, Ryan Montbleau Band, The Duhks, Miss Tess & The Talkbacks, Poor Old Shine, Caravan Of Thieves, Rusty Belle, The Dire Honeys, and more.
Sunday’s lineup is equally strong with Brandi Carlile, Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale, Lake Street Dive, Todd Snider, Heather Maloney, Milton, Bombino, Spirit Family Reunion, Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole, Lux Deluxe, The Sun Parade, Salvation Alley String Band, Gaslight Tinkers, and The Boxcar Lilies. Note there is no on-site camping at Green River.
For information and tickets, visit their website at www.greenriverfestival.com .
“Joyce and Jimmy love Johnny and June” is how they are billing Saturday night’s show at the Music at Lilypads (Unitarian Universalist Church, 27 North Road, Peace Dale). It features Ocean State musicians Joyce Katzberg and Jimmy Warren teaming up to celebrate some of the great songs and the life of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. Doors are at 7 p.m. and music begins at 7:30 p.m.
Synth pop bliss is how one magazine described the indie-pop Aussies Atlas Genius. Check out the Youtube of their appearance on the David Letterman show at the beginning of May and we think you’ll quickly agree. The band is touring behind its new release “When It Was Now?” which dropped last February and has garnered them critical raves. They bring their addictive pop sounds to The Met Café in Pawtucket (1005 Main St., Pawtucket) on Monday night. Pacific Air and Haerts are in the opening slots. Doors are at 8 p.m. and music begins at 9 p.m.
(Dan Ferguson is a freelance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on WRIU-FM 90.3.)