Third-generation bluegrass pickers Old School Freight Train move in a different direction. 

The New School

Akin to musicians of an earlier era who first learned American Blues from '60s English bands, acoustic pickers Old School Freight Train first learned their licks from Bill Monroe's pupils and not from the master himself. But if Old School is more attuned to latter-day giants such as mandolin maestro David Grisman or Jerry Garcia than the first generation of high lonesome purists, the quintet has learned its lessons well.

Drenched in originality, driving rhythms and a sound that blends jazz, bluegrass and Latin rhythms, the band is a worthy newcomer to Richmond's music scene. Its recently recorded first CD reveals a dynamic, multitalented group that deserves a listen from music fans of all ages and musical tastes. The group celebrates the release of the CD Friday at Ashland Coffee and Tea.

The band's eclectic approach should not surprise since members come from rock, heavy metal, soul, 'grass and classical backgrounds. But what does surprise is the urgency band members attach to their evolving sound.

"We wanted to mix it up, man," guitarist-percussionist-singer Jesse Harper says, as he describes how the individual group members came together with a serious intent. Mandolin player Pete Frostic agrees that, even though every band member picks impressively, reaching a purposeful consensus was equally important to the group's future.

With banjo player Ben Krakauer and bassist-singer Darrell Muller onboard and the decision to tackle the project made, the group set out to build a broad performing repertoire. They started gigging seriously in January 2001 and in a short year have built a solid local following with freshly arranged jazz covers, swing-style tunes and traditional bluegrass. In June, the band ventured to Colorado where it took second place at the annual bluegrass contest in Telluride. Returning home, the boys added Charlottesville fiddle player and singer Ann Marie Simpson to the lineup, and, with the release of the new CD, Old School appears secure in its direction. The band is particularly confident in the 11 original songs on the recording.

"We all write good songs," Muller notes, with a matter-of-fact air that belies a boast. "It wasn't worth putting (cover songs) in their place." Krakauer's take is similarly succinct. "Our band's most realized sound is with [originals]."

But if this realized sound is far-flung in influences, it is ultimately down to earth in execution and intent. There's plenty of room for individual players to express their musical personalities through improvised solos. But there's also form to the arrangements that keeps any runaway musical ideas in check.

"There's a lot of structure but it allows for improvisation … except for traditional bluegrass," Harper explains.

For Old School, making music is both a serious business and a hell of a lot of fun, whether it is performing bluegrass party music in a crowded barroom or Miles Davis covers for a cerebral crowd in a listening venue. Harper offers bottom-line sentiments that sum up the group's good-natured resolve: "Every single one of us wants to be a musician when we grow up."

Old School Freight Train celebrates the release of its first CD, Friday, Feb. 15, 8 p.m., at Ashland Coffee and Tea, 100 N. Railroad Road, $5. The band also opens for Acoustic Syndicate, Thursday, Feb. 14, at the Canal Club, 1545 E. Cary St. Call 643-2582 for details.


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