Saturday, April 10, 2010

Music feature: Authentic bluegrass, by way of Switzerland

Jens Kruger, Joel Landsberg and Uwe Kruger of the Kruger Brothers.


By Bill Meredith

The decline of major recording labels may be the most famous byproduct of the online music retail and radio booms.

But another result has been the cross-pollination of genres, the categorical descriptions that were largely created for now-dwindling record stores and musical airwaves in the first place.

A versatile case in point is the Kruger Brothers, a North Carolina-based band that blends bluegrass, country, blues, pop, classical and gospel into its own blend of new American music -- and all on its own, independent Double Time Music label.

But this group shows that the cross-pollination extends to international geographics. Its brand of roots music didn't originate in the Deep South or even the American West, but in Switzerland, where founding brothers Jens Kruger (banjo, vocals) and Uwe Kruger (lead vocals, guitar) were born and raised.

After playing throughout Europe for years as a duo, the siblings added American bassist/vocalist Joel Landsberg 15 years ago, and drummer/percussionist Josh Day for most shows since 2007. The quartet, with guest bluegrass fiddle ace Bobby Hicks, plays a special 3 p.m. matinee show on Sunday at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach.

"I'd moved to Switzerland in 1989," Landsberg says, "and the music scene was small enough there that it didn't take long for me to meet up with the Krugers. Jens and I were initially working in a dozen or so bands together as sidemen, and I soon developed a friendship and musical camaraderie with he and Uwe. And we all gave up our side gigs in 1995 to concentrate on this band."

He even moved to North Wilkesboro, N.C., with both Kruger brothers (Uwe is married to a U.S. citizen and has applied for a green card; something Jens already received through his composition and musicianship) to prove it. Landsberg is essentially the band's publicist as well as bassist, a double-duty that also applies to the group's technical director, Philip Zanon.

"I'm basically the liaison between the press, promoters, organizers," Landsberg says, "plus I do the bookings and handle road management. Philip's the head of our record company as well as our technical director, and a dual citizen in Switzerland and the U.S. We all do what we can to make a living through music, which we're very fortunate to do."

The roots of the Kruger Brothers sprouted from the floor upward. That's where, as children in Switzerland, Uwe (now 48) and Jens (47) placed a guitar between them and each played three strings. Their father inspired the brothers' appreciation for roots music by returning from business trips to the United States with records by American artists.

But it was a trip to America that Jens took in 1982 that would solidify the Kruger Brothers' rootsy yet unorthodox musical mix. At age 20, he attended the Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival in Indiana. Now the annual Bill Monroe Memorial Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, the event provided an opportunity to meet up with the since-deceased Monroe – and beyond. Jens actually stayed with the bluegrass icon during that summer.

"That was a real pivotal point for Jens," Landsberg says. "Bill really encouraged him to find his own voice and create his own music. Jens likes to tell the story where he's sitting in the kitchen late one night with Bill, just picking banjo and mandolin, eating ice cream, talking about God, the world and everything else. And Bill asks him, 'So Jens, what do you want to do with your life?' And Jens says, 'I want to be a bluegrass musician.' And Bill says, 'No, don't do that. You have to find your own voice. First of all, you're not from Kentucky. This is not what's inside you. You have to take what's inside you, and create your own sound.'"

"At first, Jens was taken aback by that," Landsberg continues. "But eventually it gave him the courage and impetus to go and create his own music. And I really think he's become one of the most prolific composers of our day. He's constantly coming up with new melodies and harmonic ideas, all with banjo as the lead instrument."

Fifteen years after Jens' discussion with Monroe, the Kruger Brothers made their U.S. debut at MerleFest (named for Doc Watson's deceased son, Merle Watson) in North Wilkesboro. They've performed not only with Monroe and Watson, but also artists like Willie Nelson, Bela Fleck, Ricky Skaggs, Nickel Creek, Vassar Clements, and Vince Gill.

"We were invited by Doc Watson to perform at MerleFest," Landsberg says. "And the folks here opened their hearts and their homes, and made us feel so comfortable that we eventually felt this was the logical place to set roots down."

The band tipped its hand on its future home with a three-CD set in 1999 called Carolina Scrapbook, and released a gospel edition under the same name in 2006. Its new CD, Forever and a Day, has just been released and features Day, the percussive new fourth member.

He first worked with the Kruger Brothers on the 2007 world premiere of Music From the Spring: A Romantic Serenade for Banjo, Guitar, Bass and Orchestra, performed with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra. With orchestral scores written by Jens, a live DVD of the performance might be the group's next release.

"We started working with percussionists during ‘Music From the Spring’ as a binding force between us and the conductor and symphony," Landsberg says. "Josh is a wonderful musician, and he's been with us ever since. He's helped give ‘Forever and a Day’ a bit more of a commercial, radio-friendly, updated Kruger Brothers sound."

That sound also features the natural bluegrass elements of Jens' banjo; the solid playing of Uwe and Landsberg, and the gospel-tinged three-part vocal harmonies by all three. Uwe's rich baritone leads the way, and without a trace of a European accent.

"Uwe's ex-wife's father was an English professor," Landsberg says. "He and Jens studied English, and learned American folk music out of Pete Seeger songbooks. Now that Uwe has a wife from North Carolina, he's even picking up the Southern slang."

Pressed to find a group akin to the Kruger Brothers, at least in Europe, Landsberg virtually draws a blank.

"Over there, things are more strictly traditional bluegrass, or folk, or whatever the local genre is," he says, "whether it's Bavarian, Czech or whatever else. I know there are Czech bands that play popular American folk and country music, but put Czech lyrics to it. But we're one of very few bands playing in Europe that do what we do regarding original material."

“We play American bluegrass festivals with great success," Landsberg continues, "even though we're not a traditional bluegrass band. We don't have mandolin or upright bass, and Uwe doesn't have that high, lonesome voice. And there are bluegrass purists who will walk out occasionally because we're not pure enough for them. It's just hard to put us in a genre, like it is for people like Bela Fleck and Mark O'Connor. The acoustic music scene in America has been fabulous and flourishing in recent years, so we're not unique in that aspect."

The Kruger Brothers' third and latest stop at the Society for the Four Arts comes on the heels of the band's latest European tour.

"It was exhausting, but wonderful," Landsberg says. "Lots of concerts … in not so many days, but for very responsive audiences. We've chosen not to go the route of a major record label, so our success has been slow and steady. We have a compact, devoted fan base, both here and overseas. It's hard to say it, since it's where the band originated, but Europe is like our second home now."

Bill Meredith is a freelance writer based in South Florida who has written extensively about jazz and popular music.

The Kruger Brothers appear at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Society of the Four Arts Esther B. O’Keeffe Gallery Building. Tickets: $10. Call 655-2776 or visit www.fourarts.org.

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