Give a jam band and its audience enough psychedelics and it's just a matter of time before they indulge in the excesses of a Grateful Dead concert, complete with extended instrumental passages that blur the boundaries between transcendence and tedium.
But what's more often forgotten — and less easily imitated — is the plaintive beauty of Jerry Garcia's songwriting, which could shine through even the cloudiest arrangements. Most groups on the jam-band and newgrass circuit can't come close. One that can is Railroad Earth, whose "Bird in a House" would have fit beautifully on Garcia's first solo album.
Fort Collins' Whitewater Ramble are showing a similar potential on their sophomore studio album Roots & Groove, which just happens to have been produced by Railroad Earth fiddle player Tim Carbone. The band's songs and arrangements can shift from a loose jam-band feel to the kind of "chamber-grass" sound associated with frequent Garcia collaborator David "Dawg" Grisman.
If forced to choose between the two stylistic approaches, Whitewater Ramble founder Pat Sites says he'd go with the latter.
"Well, speaking as the mandolinist of the group, Dawg is probably my single biggest influence when it comes to my particular craft and instrument," says Sites, who also sings and writes a large portion of the band's material. "I probably lean more toward the orchestrated melodies and those kind of arrangements. I think Howard [Montgomery] would go in a different direction."
Which turns out to be true: "I'm a little more into the feel, and a more nebulous, open-ended approach," confirms the upright bassist and vocalist. "But we certainly both use elements of each of those approaches."
While Whitewater Ramble mainly focus on original material, they also know that a well-chosen cover can win over new listeners. In fact, Roots & Groove opens with a rendition of "One Tree Hill," which you might never guess is a U2 song if you aren't familiar with the original. If anything, Whitewater's version sounds more like Stephen Stills and Chris Hillman during their more bluegrass-inspired moments in the band Manassas.
The Colorado quintet — which also features Damon Wood on guitar and vocals, Andy Reiner on fiddle, and Paul Kemp on drums — will go even further afield during a series of upcoming gigs at Cervantes' Other Side, the Denver venue where they're currently doing a monthly residency of eclectic tribute shows. Feb. 5th's "Pickin' on Bob Marley" installment will celebrate the late reggae icon's 70th birthday, to be followed in subsequent months by "Pickin' on Paul Simon" and "Pickin' on the '90s."
"We're big fans of Nirvana and Pearl Jam," insists Sites. "We're also contemplating songs by Rage Against the Machine and probably more than 40 other potential candidates."
"There was also this great Warren G song in the '90s," adds Montgomery, who's even more excited about the Paul Simon set. "There are a couple of [Simon's] songs I've always wanted to play, that we just haven't had the opportunity or excuse to do. Especially 'The Boy in the Bubble,' that first track off Graceland."
To do the original artists justice, the band is also bringing in additional musicians for each date. A recent tribute to Garcia and Grisman's Old and in the Way album found the group adding a banjo player and other bluegrass musicians. "And for the Marley show," says Sites, "we'll be adding some vocalists to kind of give Bob his due."
Asked how the band expects to take on songs from Graceland without having South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo on hand, Sites doesn't miss a beat: "Well, that's the beauty of being a bluegrass band — you can play whatever you want, however you want."
Much like their residencies, Whitewater Ramble's albums also get by with a little help from the band's friends. Infamous Stringdusters dobro player Andy Hall and Leftover Salmon banjoist Andy Thorn sit in on Roots & Groove, while producer Carbone lends a hand with the dramatic string arrangements on songs like "Guilty as Charged."
Elsewhere, the group offers up an ode to Irish whiskey with "Old Jameson" and heartfelt harmonies on "Paradise," as well as an all-too-topical anthem, "Dear Mr. Bankman," which Sites says was influenced by Vince Herman's Great American Taxi song "Poor House."
As a whole, Whitewater Ramble's recordings are both ambitious and accessible. Shows, meanwhile, lean toward a rowdier approach that, in one video, actually inspires some good old-fashioned stage-diving — something kind of rare at bluegrass shows.
"We definitely can work folks into a frenzy, when you get the right mixture of music and alcohol," says Sites. "I think we probably have more stage antics and crazy things happening at our shows than, say, the Del McCoury Band."