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Hadley Music Group proudly released an instrumental album of original banjo tunes composed and performed by Ilya Toshinskiy on May 20, 2016. Ilya Toshinskiy has always been a bluegrass lover. That fact was beautifully established in the opening scene of the 2003 documentary “The Ballad of Bering Strait,” which follows the brief but memorable trajectory of his former band. A teenage Ilya, in his final exam on banjo at an elite Russian music academy in Moscow, introduces his program — a Bela Fleck number followed by “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” to professors who are clearly unfamiliar with bluegrass music. By the end of the performance, they are believers.
So it should come as no surprise that Ilya’s new solo album, Red Grass (Hadley Music Group), is an instrumental bluegrass album and a dream come true for Toshinskiy. Though acclaimed for his guitar prowess, he considers banjo his first instrument. While being trained in classical guitar as a preteen, Ilya heard another student of his teacher, a bluegrass enthusiast, playing banjo and was mesmerized. He insisted on learning that instrument and quickly excelled, soaking up the influence of Earl Scruggs and others.
In the former Soviet Union, seriously lacking in resources for the bluegrass musician, such a pursuit required a single-minded commitment and ingenuity. There were trips by his teacher to the Lenin Library in Moscow to take photographs of banjo tablatures that had somehow made their way into the shelves there. There were thumb picks made from plastic rulers that were boiled until they could be molded around Ilya’s thumb by his teacher — as well as crude, jagged metal picks made from tin cans. And cheap Korean and West German banjos whose sound was lacking. But dedication paid off.
Ilya went on to become a founding member of the band that ultimately became known as Bering Strait, a coed group of bluegrass-influenced but musically omnivorous Russian prodigies who moved to Nashville as teens in the 1990s, generated a ton of buzz, scored a major-label record deal, received a 2003 Grammy nomination (best country instrumental performance on which Toshinskiy played lead guitar and banjo) and were featured on “60 Minutes” … yet never really caught on at radio.
Enjoy the video below and hear Ilya describe his challenges of learning to play banjo as a young child growing up in the former Soviet Union.
Toshinskiy, who was increasingly being offered session work, struck out on his own before Bering Strait disbanded in 2006. Since then he has shined as a studio musician, a five-time winner of Music Row’s award for top guitar player (for playing on the most Top 10 Billboard records) and a two-time Academy of Country Music player of the year (specialty instruments). Artists whose records his playing has graced include Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw, Reba McEntire, Glen Campbell, Kacey Musgraves, the Doobie Brothers and Rascal Flatts (he played the banjo on the trio’s 2012 chart-topper “Banjo”).
Red Grass offered him the opportunity “to turn the page” with his own album of banjo music. He flexes his instrumental and compositional skills on 10 original numbers (he also plays slide mandolin on one song). The album bears the stamp of a focused, disciplined, fearless artist playing the music of his heart. There are no lyrics, but lyricism abounds in Ilya’s expressive banjo playing, which conveys a range of emotions.
The songs, he says, grew from him jamming on his back porch. Many of the titles hold personal meaning: “Train Station,” for example, refers to the depot in his Russian hometown where he would wait in the cold for the next train to Moscow to the music conservatory.
Ilya praises his dream team of supporting musicians: Bryan Sutton and Jake Stargel on acoustic guitar; Byron House on upright bass; Andy Leftwich and Aubrey Haynie on mandolin and fiddle; Jerry Douglas on Dobro; Luke Bulla on fiddle; Sam Bush on mandolin. “They really elevated the whole record,” he says, compelling him to rewrite some tunes to make them stronger. “I am pretty proud of this effort. Everybody played amazingly, and it was a blast.”
The album-closing “Swan Song” features only Ilya and his banjo, a fitting end to a record that is sure to make believers out of a new group of fans. The album will be available on Amazon.com, iTunes and CDBaby as well as other online stores.
North Adams, MA -- FreshGrass, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MASS MoCA) 3-day bluegrass and roots music festival, announces additional bands for its annual September festival. UK experimental folk group Lau, mandolin virtuoso Sierra Hull, Texas blues and roots sensation Ruthie Foster, alt-folk, Northampton-based Parsonsfield, and Mexican bluegrasser Rana Santacruz join the festival lineup, which already brims with Americana favorites including Old Crow Medicine Show, Glen Hansard, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Rosanne Cash, The Devil Makes Three, a Saturday night hoedown featuring The Infamous Stringdusters, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Aoife O’Donovan, Alison Brown, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, Stephane Wrembel, John Reischman and the Jaybirds, Mr. Sun, Mile Twelve, and last year’s FreshGrass Award winners Old Salt Union and Zoe & Cloyd.
FreshGrass, at MASS MoCA on September 16-18, 2016, features bluegrass traditionalists and innovators on four stages and in every nook and cranny of the museum’s 28-building, 16-acre campus. This year’s festival marks an integrated partnership with No Depression, the quarterly journal for roots music and online roots music authority.
Lau is at the center of the British folk scene. Featuring guitar, fiddle, squeezebox, and the hearty vocals of its three members (Kris Drever, Martin Green, and Aidan O’Rourke), the band’s name comes from an old Orcadian word for “natural light,” and its music follows suit. “Steeped in folk heritage but with a love for experimentation” (The Guardian), Lau’s shimmering folk melodies and countless instrumental layers shed new light on traditional music. With its debut album released in 2007, Lau won Best Group for three consecutive years at the BBC Folk Awards, has made appearances at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Calgary Folk Music Festival, and wowed a U.S. audience at last year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival. With three masterful studio albums released, Folk Radio UK names Lau as “the mothership for an extraordinary artistic outpouring and some of the best music being made anywhere in any genre.”
Championed by Alison Krauss as having talent with no boundaries, mandolin extraordinaire and prodigy Sierra Hull hits the FreshGrass stage on her way to a tremendously bright future. Hull began playing mandolin at age 8, was signed to Rounder Records at age 13, and now at 24, after attending and graduating from Berklee College of Music on the prestigious Presidential Scholarship, has already recorded three studio albums, collaborating with mentor Alison Krauss. Her most recent, Weighted Mind, produced by banjo luminary Béla Fleck, is a “stunning coming-of-age album” with which Hull joins the likes of Nickel Creek alums Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins as “pedigreed virtuosos whose youthful, searching musical minds have taken them into postmodern singer-songwriter territory and beyond” (NPR Music).
As a musician who grew up in a family of gospel singers in small-town Texas, Ruthie Foster brings the blues to the FreshGrass lineup this year. Often compared to both Bonnie Raitt and Aretha Franklin, Ruthie has rocked stages around the country with her soulful, heartfelt voice. “Ruthie's voice is such a singular, powerful instrument, and she has such mastery of it,” her producer Meshell Ndegeocello touts. “She can turn it on, belt it out, and bring you to your knees, all in an instant."
Foster’s three most recent albums have all been nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album, and from 2011 to 2013 she earned three consecutive Blues Music Awards. She’s also won three Koko Taylor Awards for Best Traditional Female Blues Artist, an Austin Music Award for Best Female Vocalist, and a Living Blues Critics’ Award for Female Blues Artist of the Year, among others. With appearances on stage with Susan Tedeschi, Bonnie Raitt, and The Allman Brothers Band, Ruthie Foster is an authentic blues singer who honors the artists before her and captures new musical moments in each and every one of her performances.
Adding some local flavor to the festival, five-piece alt-folk band Parsonsfield, based in nearby Northampton, Mass., give Americana a makeover with its tasteful and rowdy sing-along anthems. Members Chris Freeman (vocals, banjo), Antonio Alcorn (mandolin), Max Shakun (vocals, pump organ, guitar), Harrison Goodale (bass), and Erik Hischmann (drums) made their name relentlessly touring the northeast for the better half of the decade since their nascent days as hobbyist musicians at the University of Connecticut, where agriculture student Freeman met paper artist Alcorn in a folk music club on campus, and they landed their first gig by accident when the club was mistaken for a band.
After the addition of new members and experimentation with new instruments, including electric fan, gourd piano, and saw, the group refined its sound, changed its name and recorded its first album, Poor Old Shine (Signature Sounds, 2013) in Parsonsfield, Maine. “On stage, Parsonsfield will give you rich five-part harmonies one minute, sound like bluegrass on steroids the next, and then rock you over the head with unbearably cool and raucous Celtic rhythms. All with taste and class” (No Depression). Parsonsfield’s next album is due to be released just in time for the band’s FreshGrass festival debut.
Mexican-American alt-ranchera singer Rana Santacruz brings a global atmosphere to the FreshGrass lineup. Born and raised in Mexico City, Santacruz moved to Brooklyn in 2002 to re-invent his musical persona, after playing in the ‘90s alt-rock scene in Mexico City. Inspired by the endless burgeoning talent New York City offers, Santacruz’s music adapted a cosmopolitan flavor that ranges from Irish mariachi to Mexican bluegrass to alternative folk.
He released his debut album Chicavasco in 2010 to rave reviews from critics — NPR Music says his “music is as magical as his persona” — and has since appeared at Austin’s South by Southwest, NPR’s Tiny Desk, New York’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. With his 2015 follow-up release Por Ahí, he further embraced his worldly tastes, influenced by “everything from Balkan-influenced dance music, bearded hipster cool, 1920's jazz, and even bluegrass” (NPR Music). Santacruz wields an accordion while he sings heartbreaking songs marinated in Mexican folklore.
In addition to more than 50 band performances, FreshScores — live music played while classic silent films are screened, the FreshGrass Award — 20 emerging artists competing in the band, duo, fiddle, and banjo categories for up to $25,000 in cash prizes and recording time at Compass Records, festival events include workshops, the festival’s legendary jam sessions — during which professional musicians pick and play among the crowd, many of whom bring their own instruments, camping (located a short distance from MASS MoCA’s campus) and family programming. World-class art, some massive in scale, is on view all weekend, as admission to MASS MoCA’s galleries is included with every festival pass. Festival-goers enjoy dozens of pop-up concerts across the museum's 16-acre, post-industrial campus nestled in the bucolic Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts.
Advance 3-day adult tickets are now available for $99, with student tickets priced at $89, $46 for kids 6-16, and free admission for kids five and under. Available for $300, FreshPass is a deluxe festival experience offering preferred seating at most stages, meet-and-greet opportunities with FreshGrass artists, access to the FreshPass Lounge, and locally sourced snacks and beer. MASS MoCA members receive a 10% discount on festival ticket prices. Single-day tickets may be offered closer to the event, as space allows. FreshGrass details will be updated on the festival website, freshgrass.com. FreshGrass is held rain or shine.
FreshGrass is sponsored by Compass Records, the American Roots Music Program at Berklee College of Music, Deering Banjo Company, Guido's Fresh Marketplace, Eastman Guitars, Stop and Shop, and the Porches Inn at MASS MoCA. Additional support is by Berkshire Gas as part of its music series at MASS MoCA.
FreshGrass is committed to preserving, supporting, and creating innovative grassroots music. The FreshGrass Foundation, which co-produces the festival with MASS MoCA, funds the FreshGrass Awards and FreshGrass Presents, creates new music through FreshScores and the FreshGrass Commission, and operates the No Depression Fellowship for writers. The foundation operates No Depression — the roots music authority both online and in print.
MASS MoCA is one of the world's liveliest (and largest) centers for making and enjoying today's most important art, music, dance, theater, film, and video. Hundreds of works of visual and performing art have been created on its 19th-century factory campus during fabrication and rehearsal residencies, making MASS MoCA among the most productive sites in the country for the creation and presentation of new art. More platform than box, MASS MoCA strives to bring to its audiences art experiences that are fresh, engaging, and transformative.
MASS MoCA's galleries are open 11am to 5pm every day except Tuesdays. From June 26 through September 7, MASS MoCA's galleries are open 10am to 6pm every day, with extended evening hours to 7pm on Thursdays through Saturdays. The Hall Art Foundation’s Anselm Kiefer exhibition is open seasonally, spring – fall. Gallery admission is $18 for adults, $16 for veterans and seniors, $12 for students, $8 for children 6 to 16, and free for children 5 and under. Members are admitted free year-round. For additional information, call 413.662.2111 x1 or visit www.massmoca.org.