The Jack Cloonan Band is keeping alive the long tradition of Colorado bands like Leftover Salmon, String Cheese Incident, Hot Rize, and Yonder Mountain String Band, who have since the formation of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in the 70s, been stretching the boundaries of bluegrass beyond its simple origins and reimagining the genre for the next generation.
Cloonan, like those predecessors, has taken the simple roots of the genre and infused it with a lifetime of influences to create something fresh and new. In Cloonan’s case those influences include fiddle tunes learned from his grandfather, the funk and blues he heard in his native Chicago, and the fun, loose, improvisational feel he discovered from summertime festivals.
Fun is the First Note, the debut album from Cloonan, hints at those long-held traditional bluegrass ideals, but is not reliant on them. Instead, with a band built on the foundation of drummer Khalil Brown, Mike Testagrosa on dobro, and bassist Jake Hasluck, Fun is the First Note is a sonic exploration that delivers a musical adventure, the sound of a lazy afternoon smoke with friends as the warm sun shines on your face.
The opening “Aspen Trees,” is the perfect start to the album as it blows in like a cool mountain breeze, immediately putting you at ease. The song is delivered with a sly, underlying sense of humor and social awareness. This subtle approach is much like their spiritual predecessor Leftover Salmon – they recognize the importance of not taking yourself too seriously – it is music, and it is supposed to be fun. But like Leftover Salmon the Jack Cloonan Band exhibits a deep respect for the music and history that came before, and have fun while delivering groove-inducing and thought provoking songs.
The instrumentals on the album showcase what this band is capable of live, as they have enough room and open spaces to allow them to take them off into completely new exploratory realms. The hard-driving “Golden Hoss” echoes traditional bluegrass, but the presence of Brown, a third-generation reggae drummer, pushes the song into uncharted territories, creating a twisted, trippy version of a David Grisman tune.
The album swoops and serves back and forth, veering from the breezy sound of “Aspen Trees” to the adventurous “Golden Hoss,” back to the bouncy, contemplative “Letter to a Friend,” and then through the barreling “High on Chai,” with its subtle tip of the hat to Indian slide-guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya.
Albums that move quickly from idea to idea can sometimes come off as jarring, but the Jack Cloonan Band has crafted an album full of tension and release that plays like a live show. They are able to take us on a ride through their musical circus; they amaze us with their feats of dexterity, make us laugh with their simplicity, smile at the sound of their unbridled joy and happiness in playing music, and make us feel at home all through the course of a single album.