Mon River Ramblers
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Mon River Ramblers

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States | SELF

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States | SELF
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Jun
25
Mon River Ramblers @ Thunderbird Cafe

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

Jun
17
Mon River Ramblers @ Laurel Highlands Bluegrass Festival

Ligoneir, Pennsylvania, USA

Ligoneir, Pennsylvania, USA

Jun
11
Mon River Ramblers @ Three Rivers Arts Festival

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

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The Mon River Ramblers are based in Pittsburgh, Pa., deriving their name from the Monongahela River that flows through the heart of the city. Starting out as a jam band at the University of Pittsburgh, the group currently consists of the Kuzemka brothers, Jim (guitar) and Jeff (banjo), along with Paul Dvorchak (fiddle), Robin Brubaker (bass), and Luke Stamper (fiddle).

The ten-song disc is the band’s recording debut and consists of original material, the lone exception being the gospel standard “No Hiding Place.” The band’s style is highlighted by precise picking, especially on a pair of instrumentals, “Economic Breakdown” and “Catamount.” Their lead and harmony vocals are flawless on numbers such as “One More Night,” “This Old Road,” and “Always Be Blue.” For a first time effort, the Mon River Ramblers have come out swinging with a home run that should open doors of opportunity for the group. (Luke Stamper, 4503 1/2 Corday Way, Pittsburgh, PA 15224, www.monriverramblers.com) LM - Bluegrass Unlimited


Envision a group of twentysomethings playing music in a city bar, and most likely some punk, grunge or heavy metal comes to mind. The last thing you'd think of is bluegrass. Which means that the seemingly effortless virtuosity of the Mon River Ramblers -- the area's first breakout bluegrass act from the younger generation -- comes as a pleasant surprise the first time you hear them, no matter what age you are.

That's just fine with Ramblers mandolinist and North Allegheny High School grad Luke Stamper, who only started learning to play his instrument about four years ago. Previously, he was a "big old hippie" who followed Phish around for two years, selling "T-shirts" to make a living.

"One aspect of Phish's music was bluegrass," he recalls. "But when my high-school buddy bought a mandolin, as soon as I heard him play, I fell in love with it, and I've been pursuing it seriously ever since."

Unlike Stamper, Ramblers fiddler Paul Dvorchak had a familial background -- his father, also named Paul, had an abiding interest in folk and bluegrass.

"We started playing simple duet stuff together," he recalls, "and that evolved into the Nine Mile Run String Band, a five-piece bluegrass band that played together for over 10 years."

He stood out in that band for his remarkable young age of 13, while the other members were in their 40s and 50s. But bluegrass wasn't the young Dvorchak's only influence -- he listened to the occasional punk band.

"I had a mohawk for a couple years. I got comments from old-timers at traditional festivals who had never seen a haircut like that, but they were nice, and nobody gave me a hard time."

The Ramblers congealed as a result of "front-porch jamming and whiskey-drinking sessions" at the University of Pittsburgh, according to Stamper, who had met brothers Jim and Jeff Kuzemka. "We were the three core members and had two guitars and a mandolin, so we forced Jeff to learn to play the banjo. He's studied music his whole life -- he was the kid who took guitar solos behind his head at the sixth grade talent show --so it was the best decision to make him pick that up."

After college, three of the five band members (including the more recent addition, bassist Robin Brubaker) settled in a house on Corday Way in Bloomfield, located behind what became their second home -- the bar Howler's Coyote Cafe. The neighborhood also has been a prime location for the band to busk, in addition to playing at all the surrounding venues.

"We've met a lot of great people just busking on the street," says Dvorchak, "because if you're walking down Liberty Avenue, or through Shadyside or the South Side, you don't expect to see a bluegrass band on the pavement."

In the context of smaller venues is where the band decided to present its sound in a traditional manner -- instead of everyone plugging a dozen channels directly into the sound system, they all cluster in a semicircle around one high-end condenser microphone.

"It feels more like a jam session when we do that, and it's better than standing in a line," explains Dvorchak, "so we use the one mic whenever we can."

"It's the best way to get the purest sound out of your instrument," adds Stamper. "When you plug them in it takes away from the natural sound. This is like sitting in a living room and watching a band play."

Although the one-mic technique doesn't suffice for bigger rooms Dvorchak says that it's perfect for outdoor festivals. "You can turn the mic up louder without getting feedback."

One venue that the condenser worked well in was Oakland's Synod Hall, which the Ramblers recently graced as part of the 11th annual bluegrass benefit concert for St. Joseph's House of Hospitality, run by Dvorchak's father.

"It's a facility for men 50 and older who are homeless," Paul says. "They give them a room and a key. The concert was a good way to raise money, but also the first time of a lot of hard-core festival-goers got to see us, and we got a good response. It was also the first night we had our CD for sale, so people could take something home with them."

For that night, they worked up a set list that ran the gamut of styles -- fast and slow, traditional and progressive. "We want to show that we're capable of playing traditionally, but also in the styles of modern bands that are doing unique things with bluegrass, like the Stringdusters or Cadillac Sky," says Stamper.

"But with audiences of younger people in bars, we might have a lot of faster, high-energy songs, more than we would at a festival," adds Dvorchak.

Although there's plenty of bluegrass crossover with the jam-band scene from which Stamper first emerged -- for example, The String Cheese Incident -- Stamper doesn't want to get too stuck on labels.

"What David Grisman does is called 'Dog music,' Leftover Salmon is 'jamgrass', and the Avett Brothers have been called 'grunge-grass' in some newspapers. Either they make up their own genre names, or the fans do."

He's more interested in bringing all of those crowds together -- something that will happen from June 18-21 at the Telluride Festival, the largest bluegrass gathering on the continent with expected attendance of well over 10,000. Though more than 75 percent of the acts are always strictly bluegrass, this year the likes of David Byrne, Conor Oberst, Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello also will be out for the mainstream audiences.

The Ramblers' excitement about Telluride centers around their entry into the annual bluegrass competition -- only one of 12 bands to be accepted this year.

"There are two rounds," says Dvorchak. "Each band plays three songs per round: one fast vocal, one slow vocal, and one instrumental. No song can be more than three minutes. The winner gets a slot on the main stage on Sunday, and you get invited back the next year to be a mainstage act. You also get $750 and free strings."

These competitions are a mainstay of all of the prominent regional festivals, as well. "We're doing one at DelFest [headlined by Del McCoury] in Cumberland, Md., and another one in Parsons, W.Va., at Pickin' in the Panhandle," adds Stamper. "It's a great thing for the bluegrass community, helping a lot of the up-and-coming bands gain exposure."

All these showcases allow for their debut CD -- the enigmatically titled "27" -- to find its way into the pockets of many new fans.

Except for the gospel traditional "No Hiding Place," the other nine tracks are all original band compositions. But that doesn't preclude the group from playing traditional standards (Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin) or even throwing in an occasional rock cover. In addition to working up a Bad Religion song, Stamper predicts they'll do various classic rockers, such as "Eye of the Tiger," for their release shows this weekend. "We'll do some off-the-wall stuff that'll be fun for the crowd."

Lyrically, the CD doesn't stray into the sociopolitical arena -- the instrumental "Economic Breakdown" is about as topical as it gets. Instead, Stamper and Co. focus on the familiar -- a broken relationship, a bottle of Maker's Mark.

"I don't have any specific approach to writing lyrics, [so] I find inspiration in anything going on in my life or anything I can relate to."

Although there's the almost obligatory song about train-hopping hobos that so many bluegrass bands (and quite a few crusty anarcho-punks) tend to romanticize, " 'Lonesome Whistle' is about riding the trains out West and escaping the pressures of the city."

Though the band members all work day jobs -- Dvorchak does landscaping, while Stamper works at an environmental nonprofit (fittingly, the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association) -- they wouldn't be opposed to relinquishing that stability for a vagabond's life on the road.

"We practice three nights a week for three hours, and we also practice individually," stresses Stamper, "so it'd be great to be able to just focus on the music. That would be living the dream right there."

"Not too many people get the chance to do that," adds Paul. "It would be a great thing if we could bring the hobby forward and make it job one."


- Pittsburgh Post Gazette


Discography

One record, '27'. It can be streamed through our website, myspace, facebook, lastfm, itunes, or cdbaby. '27' has received airplay across the country and in Italy. Our original song, "Lonesome Whistle" is featured on College Lacrosse 2010 for XBOX live. We are in the beginning stages of releasing a live album and recording our second studio album.

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Bio

Concocting songs of love, whiskey, heartbreak, and everything in between, Pittsburgh, PA’s the Mon River Ramblers have gone from street corners to Telluride stages; all along the way creating their unique vision of bluegrass music. What started as late night pickin’ sessions around a dimly-lit candle and a robust bottle of whiskey soon blossomed into a five piece bluegrass machine. The Mon River Ramblers have quickly and rightfully earned a reputation as one of the top bluegrass bands in the city of Pittsburgh. The band is comprised of life-long musicians and music lovers who have a shared passion for creating an electrifying, soulful, and innovative take on bluegrass music.

The Mon River Ramblers first began playing their unique blend of bluegrass all throughout the streets of Pittsburgh in the early stages of 2006. Moving From their humble beginnings of pickin’ on street corners and avenues around the city, the ramblers began to get noticed and started pickin’ in bars and venues around the Pittsburgh area. The Ramblers have polished their sound with a mix of different genre’s of music to create their take on bluegrass music. Their mix of traditional bluegrass, rag-time, jazz, blues, folk, punk, and rock infused with tight pickin’ keeps their brand of fiery bluegrass music innovative and fresh. The Ramblers music is a mixture of original compositions, soaring harmonies, and an innovative approach to improvisation that brings their music full circle. The Ramblers are city boys trying to bring fast-pickin’, high energy bluegrass music back to Pittsburgh.

In the short time the Ramblers have played together they have shared the stage with the Infamous Stringdusters, Cadillac Sky, King Wilkie, Greensky Bluegrass, the Grascals, the Emmitt Nershi Band, Larry Keel & Natural Bridge, the Hot Seats, Trampled by Turtles, the Hackensaw Boys, Devil Makes Three, bluegrass hall of famer Mac Martin & the Dixie Travelers, the Two Man Gentlemen Band, Hoots & Hellmouth, The Fox Hunt, Crooked Still, Hot Buttered Rum, the Grammy nominated Greencards, and the Grammy award winning Cajun band, the Pine Leaf Boys. They won the 2011 Delfest band competition.