NewGrange's Bluegrass Fusion Finds Wide Acceptance

The band started as a lark but has become an ongoing and successful project for its all-star cast.

NewGrange, a band that started as a one-time project, now find themselves riding high on the bluegrass radio and album sales charts.

The group, whose self-titled album now is among the top 10 in bluegrass radio play nationwide — according to industry newsletter Bluegrass News — and in the top 30 on Bluegrass Unlimited's sales chart, had its genesis when fiddler Darol Anger was asked to put together a band for a Christmas tour in 1998.

Anger, who's earned a reputation playing in a variety of styles besides bluegrass, including jazz, country and classical, invited longtime cohort Mike Marshall, a guitarist and mandolin player. Also called was banjo player Alison Brown, who'd previously worked with Alison Krauss and Michelle Shocked; vocalist Tim O'Brien; bassist Todd Phillips and keyboard player Phil Aaberg.

"This was supposed to be a one-off project, a limited tour," Aaberg said, "but we had so much fun working together that after the first few days we all sort of turned to each other and said, 'Hey, wanna be in a band?' "

After the holiday tour and a related recording project, Christmas Heritage (1998), were completed, the six regrouped as NewGrange and recorded the set of originals and folk/bluegrass standards that's proved so popular.

Transforming Old Standards

"We can do a tune like 'Rock in a Weary Land' (RealAudio excerpt)," O'Brien said, "and it has this gospel sound from Phil's piano and this driving bluegrass thing from Alison's banjo, and they intersect, and it works. We're really mining the old stuff and remaking it."

Montana native Aaberg made a lot of stops along the way before he wound up lending his piano skills to NewGrange's futuristic folk fusion reworkings of such standards as "Handsome Molly" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Rock in a Weary Land."

From Montana, he went to Harvard University to study Bach, then spent a year in England studying Beethoven.

Upon arriving in San Francisco from England, he hooked up with Elvin Bishop.

"I toured with him for a few years and then got a call at about 3 a.m. one morning," Aaberg said, "from some English guy named Gabriel. I didn't know anything about him at the time, but I heard the tape he sent me and said, 'Yes, I'll do this.'

"Working with Peter [Gabriel] was actually very inspirational for me, not in terms of the kind of music I wanted to do, but because he was going out and doing something no one else was doing at that time," Aaberg said, in reference to Gabriel's ever-increasing post-Genesis delving into electronic sounds, gospel and world-music influences in the early '80s.

Returning to the Bay Area, Aaberg hooked up with New Age label Windham Hill, for which he recorded four albums of original music, including 1985's High Plains. He also crossed paths with fiddler Anger and Marshall, who, like Aaberg, played bluegrass and country music as well as jazz, classical and New Age styles.

Rural Influence Runs Deep

Despite his myriad interests and influences, Aaberg learned way back in his college years that he was a country boy at heart.

"When I went to Harvard, I put away everything that smacked of country music — until I really started listening to the way I played," he recalled. "My brother told me that you can take the boy out of the country but you can't take the country out of the boy.

"I grew up in Montana, in a town not far from the Canadian border. It's a sparsely populated area — the two main sounds are the wind and the trains. I know that's influenced the way I write," he said.

Growing up in Montana, Aaberg learned to fly fish, something he still does for relaxation when he's touring. "It's one of the most creative sports there is," he says. "You can have 50 fishermen out there in the river, and they are all gonna go about catching the fish in a different way.

"To me that's kind of the way this band is — the way music is. You bring your own creativity to it; you don't do what someone else has done before. You work out what was best there and then bring in your own ideas to move it forward."

NewGrange tour dates:

June 8; Phoenix, Ariz.; Alice Coopers'town

June 9; Tucson, Ariz.; Temple of Music & Art

June 10; Alto, N.M.; Spencer Theatre

June 15; Telluride, Colo.; Telluride Bluegrass Festival

June 24; Sebastopol, Calif.; Caswell Vineyards

Aug. 9; Steamboat Springs; Colo.; Strings in the Mountains

Aug. 10; Salt Lake City, Utah; Galivan Utah Center

Aug. 11; Alta, Utah; Grand Targhee Festival

Nov. 9; West Lafayette, Ind.; Loeb Theatre

Nov. 10; St. Louis, Mo.; Sheldon Concert Hall

Nov. 11; Kansas City, Mo.; Unity Temple