In the tradition of supergroups like The Traveling Wilburys and The Highwaymen comes Black Prairie, the amalgamation of The Decemberists' Chris Funk (Dobro), Nate Query (Bass), and Jenny Conlee (Accordion), Annalisa Tornfelt (Violin) from Bearfoot and the Woolwines, and Jon Neufeld (Guitar) of Dolorean. The bluegrass project began when Funk and Query put together a side project when they had a break from touring with The Decemberists. The group's first album, Feast of the Hunters’ Moon, was released in 2010 on Sugar Hill Records. Most of the group’s songs are instrumentals usually consisting of only stringed instruments. Black Prairie truly creates music that they like making and “music for music’s sake”. The group is releasing a special vinyl only record which features two new songs for National Record Store Day on April 21, 2012.
Listening to the music of Portland, OR folk supergroup Black Prairie, you get the sense that these are people who really revel in the power of making music. Not the satisfaction you get from carefully stitching sounds and beats together in music editing software like Ableton Live or Cubase, but the power of sitting in a room and making beautiful sounds spring to life from nothing more than the movement of your fingers on wood and metal objects. Witness a folk jam session, whether in a U.K. Pub or Appalachian porch, and you're bound to see players enter a trance-like state that ends with grinning musicians wondering how it's possible for time to move so fast, and making sounds feel so good. Luckily, that power isn't restricted to the people playing the instruments, plenty rubs off on Black Prairie's listeners.
Black Prairie is 3/5 of the Decemberists, and rounded out by members of fellow Portland bands Barefoot and Dolorean. Members wield fiddle, upright bass, accordion, guitar and dobro, and play a fluid mix of Americana peppered with European folk traditions. Their name is apt -Black Prairie's debut Feast of the Hunters' Moon often has an expansiveness to it suggesting great open spaces as well as dark undercurrents.
The band draws inspiration from a number of traditions, but bluegrass may be the backbone. “Back Alley” is straight up bluegrass with its quickly picked acoustic guitar trading licks with lively fiddle and accordion happily darting in for a solo. “Home Made Lemonade” is similarly lively, a sunny-splash of acoustic joy that veers almost into classical chamber music before heading back to good ol' foot stomping territory.
While Black Prairie is foremost an instrumental group on their debut, some of their best moments include vocals. Beginning with bluesy, hauntingly spiritual vocals, “Red Rocking Chair” slowly adds layers of atmospheric fiddle and accordion like dark storm clouds approaching from across the plains. “Crooked Little Heart” is beautifully lethargic with shots of jazz injected into the country noir frame.