Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Chris Castino & Chicken Wire Empire: “Fresh Pickles” (2022) CD Review

Chris Castino is the guitarist and singer for the popular jam band The Big Wu. On Fresh Pickles, his new album, he teams up with the Milwaukee bluegrass band Chicken Wire Empire to explore some new versions of songs he wrote and originally recorded with The Big Wu. Chicken Wire Empire is made up of Ryan Ogburn on mandolin, Jordan Kroeger on bass, Ernest Brusbardis IV on fiddle and vocals, and Jon Peik on banjo and vocals. There are also some special guests on most of these tracks, including Sam Bush, Keller Williams, Jerry Douglas and Peter Rowan. And don’t worry if you’re not familiar with The Big Wu, for this album can certainly function as an introduction to the band’s music. As long as you like good songwriting and appreciate some fine bluegrass playing, you’ll enjoy this album.

It opens with “Kangaroo,” a song from The Big Wu’s 1997 album Tracking Buffalo Through The Bathtub. And right away you can hear how well the band’s music fits a bluegrass approach. This track features some nice work by Ryan Ogburn on mandolin, and includes the playful nods to “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport” that were in the original, this time delivered on fiddle. And toward the end, there is some delicious work on guitar. It’s a fun start to the album. That’s followed by “Red Sky,” another song from Tracking Buffalo Through The Bathtub. On that original album the song is approximately nine minutes. Here it is half that length, but still contains some good jamming. And here it features a special guest appearance by Sam Bush on fiddle, who of course delivers some excellent work. That instrumental section is dominated by fiddle, which is wonderful. Then we get a more recent song, “Bound For The South,” which was included on the 2018 Big Wu album We Are Young We Are Old. On that record, it has kind of a bluesy country rock vibe. Here it has a sweeter, sad sound, and features special guests Tim O’Brien on fiddle and vocals, and Nick Forster on vocals (both of whom you likely know from their work in Hot Rize). I love this rendition, and think it’s better than the original. In addition to fiddle, there is some really good work on mandolin.

Then the band delivers a couple of tunes that were originally included on the 2000 Big Wu release Folktales – “Shantytown” and “Minnesota Moon.” The first features Vince Herman (from Leftover Salmon) on vocals. It is delivered as one of those relatively fast-paced bluegrass tunes, and it works quite well. A totally enjoyable, lively number. “Minnesota Moon” features Adam Greuel (from Horseshoes & Hand Grenades) on vocals. This is an inherently fun song, and this rendition features some good work on guitar and banjo. “Look who just walked in the door/We’ve all seen your face before/Time to settle up the score/Keep those promises you swore.” Then from the 2004 Big Wu release Tool For Evening, Chris Castino & Chicken Wire Empire choose “Texas Fireball,” that album’s rocking opening track. Here it becomes a swiftly moving bluegrass gem, featuring Keller Williams on vocals and Andy Hall (from The Infamous Stringdusters) on dobro. This is great fun. It’s then followed by a sweet-sounding tune, “Goodbye, Fon Du Lac (The Young Pioneer),” from We Are Young We Are Old, where it is titled simply “Young Pioneer.” No special guests appear on this track, but none are needed, for everything about this one sounds just exactly right.

“Rhode Island Red,” from the 2002 album Spring Reverb, is a song that already had some bluegrass elements in its original form, and so fits really well on this new album. Like “The Young Pioneer,” this one does not feature any special guests, but it is a fun and lively tune with a great jam toward the end. “Must be off my rocker/It must be time for bed/Can I sleep here tonight/If I promise I won’t bite.” These lines also stand out: “Go find another fool/Someone who will call it love when they get treated cruel.” Adam Greuel joins the group again on vocals for “Jackson County,” and Jerry Douglas plays dobro on this one. This is a delightful track, the song originally from We Are Young We Are Old. “Keep 94 at the interstate split/Nobody knows that you just dropped a hit/If you’re driving through Jackson County, hang up your phone.” Ah, good advice, wherever you’re driving. Jerry Douglas offers some wonderful work, just as you’d expect. I also really like the fiddle here. Jerry Douglas also plays on the next track, “The Ballad Of Dan Toe,” a song that was included on the live three-disc set 3/13/98 Cedar Cultural Centre, Minneapolis, Minnesota. This track also features Peter Rowan on vocals. So, yeah, there is a ridiculous amount of talent on this one, certainly making it a highlight of the disc. The album then concludes with “Irregular Heartbeat,” a song from Spring Reverb. This rendition has more of a playful vibe than the original, but still comes across as sweet. It is a love song, after all. I enjoy this version more than the original. “Close my eyes and there you are/Stay in my mind ‘til the morning wakes me.”

CD Track List

  1. Kangaroo
  2. Red Sky
  3. Bound For The South
  4. Shantytown
  5. Minnesota Moon
  6. Texas Fireball
  7. Goodbye, Fond Du Loc (The Young Pioneer)
  8. Rhode Island Red
  9. Jackson County
  10. The Ballad Of Dan Toe
  11. Irregular Heartbeat

Fresh Pickles is scheduled to be released on February 4, 2022.

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