There’s a good chance that most of the people reading this review have never heard of the bluegrass band that calls themselves Cornmeal. Weird band names seem to be more plentiful than ever these days, but Cornmeal is as ubiquitous as any in recent memory. As a marketing ploy, it borders on the ineffectual. Consequently, it may surprise those unawares to know that Cornmeal’s been around since the start of the new millennium, having attracted a populist following of significant proportions. Little wonder then that they’ve become regulars on the festival circuit, given their reverence for tradition as filtered through their contemporary credence.
Nevertheless, the band hasn’t released a new studio album in nearly ten years, and while their emphasis on live recordings attests to their stage savvy, their reticence to expand their audience seems to have help distance them from wider recognition. Evidence of their instrumental prowess and penchant for spontaneity is well preserved on record — at least half of their recorded catalogue is devoted to archival concert offerings — but clearly a broader introduction is long overdue.
That said, Slow Street may be the album to bring the uninitiated up to speed. To their credit, Cornmeal offer no extra additives; studio trappings aside, the unbridled energy and enthusiasm that guides them in live performance remains intact here, event hough they’re tempered to some extent by the constraints of staying within a defined song structure. Likewise, given a reputation that’s built on populists precepts — that is, its bond with fans and followers — there’s little here in the way of added embellishment. The group’s primary songwriters — bassist and producer Chris Gangi and banjo player Wavy Dave Burlingame — take their cues from more traditional trappings, fashioning material that easily accommodates their closely knit down-home harmonies, a decidedly upbeat delivery, some spirited send-ups and the rousing revelry fleshed out by guitarist Scott Tipping, drummer Drew Littel and fiddler Phil Roach.
Consequently, the songs mainly serve to accentuate the band’s affection for rollicking, riveting hoedowns of the old time variety, and sure enough, tunes such as “Goodnight My Darling,” “Coming Back Home” and “Long Hard Road” whoop things up at full throttle, a breathless output parlayed at a double time pace and, not surprisingly, in full frenzy. On occasion they pause to catch their breath, and with the more melodic respite offered by “Lay Me Down” and the breezy saunter of “All Things Must Change,” their songwriting skills are allowed full command. Like most jam bands however, Cornmeal’s proficiency is best expressed in their instrumental interaction, and on Slow Street they situate themselves in the fast lane most of the way.
To sum it all up, it’s balls out bluegrass which makes Slow Street such a welcome return. Longtime fans can affirm the group’s prowess while newcomers may scratch their heads and wonder why they hadn’t taken notice well before now. No matter. Forget the silly name; when it comes to making their the music, Cornmeal possess all the necessary additives.