Purposeful Mastery: A Review of Dance Tunes for the City Stompers
The talent and tasteful playing of old-time virtuosos Nate Leath and Danny Knicely is indisputable. With diverse interests and expansive harmonic and rhythmic understanding, the two effortlessly transcend the boundaries of their musical conventions. Perhaps it's this limitlessness that makes their contribution to the dance community, most recently with the recording of "Dance Tunes for the City Stompers", so potent. Not only does this collaboration mark an important and often overlooked intersection between music and dance, but also acts to formally acknowledge the cross-medium communication essential for understanding this dynamic.
In many ways, "Dance Tunes" is like many old-time records with the key exception that it was conceived with the dancer in mind. As a 'casual' flatfooter (read "2 a.m. on the subway platform waiting for the train"), this album has proved invaluable. The variation in tempi allows for work on basic steps with a metronomic sense akin to that of the live performance. Likewise, the tempo variations are in perfect array and well laid out and displayed on the album. The alternation of slow and fast takes allows for slow and steady isolation of step patterns before moving on to faster tracks for implementation into one's repertoire of movement, no doubt the plan of the album's producer and artistic director of the City Stompers, Megan Downes.
Beyond its essential value to the dancer, it also serves as incredible musical document. The listener would find it tough not to be taken aback by the masterful counterpoint of Leath and Knicely. Despite the conventional context of "Dance Tunes" (which might seem especially plebeian if you've heard any of Leath's "Rockville Pike"), the brilliance of the duo's musicianship shines throughout. In the truest sense, these players weave and pulse with incredible ease.
My favorite recordings were by far the "slow" takes – intended to keep tempo for dancers practicing basic steps, these recordings also highlight the incredible virtuosity of these musicians; beyond the facade of speed, we're presented with musical ideas that move and twist kaleidoscopically, exposing the rock-solid rhythm and deep groove of both David and Danny Knicely. I love the band's version of "Cluck Old Hen" in D minor with its beautiful, slinking fiddle lines, highlighted by subtle variations that propel the tune onward. Other slow takes, like the reggae-infused "Cold Frosty Morning" and the ever-classic "Shortnin' Bread" seem to crawl and bob along effortlessly, yet with a seemingly endless array of tones and timbres from fiddler Nate Leath. This attention to detail and focus is the mark of true mastery that is perfectly framed by this recording.
The take-away here: a great record for dancers (of course) and excellent for musicians looking to familiarize themselves with the old-time literature and vocabulary. Pick up a copy today at any City Stompers event or via the CD Baby link listed below. Also be sure to follow the City Stompers on Facebook or visit their web site for more ways to get involved in NYC's flatfooting and old-time community!
Danny Knicely - guitar (fiddle on tracks 5 &9)
Nate Leath - fiddle (guitar on tracks 5 & 9)
David Knicely - bass
recorded October 24 & 25, 2015, Marshall VA & April 24, 2016, Millwood VA
all tracks traditional, arranged by Danny Knicely, Nate Leath, David Knicely and Megan Downes
produced, recorded and mixed by Danny Knicely
mastered by Rice Mastering
executive producer Megan Downes
cover artwork by Sean Daly
design & layout by Daniela Muhling