Album artwork by James Bristol
Band Photo by Handerson Gomes
In typical Pittsburgh fashion, winter this year has extended into late March. A few fifty-degree days aside, the trees are still bare, the grass is still matted down and muddy from recent snow, and somber shades of grey and brown still dominate the chilly landscape.
Despite the melancholy, something beautiful is due to bloom very soon. On Friday, March 30th, the soulful folk/bluegrass group Buffalo Rose will release their debut full-length album, The Soil and the Seed. The occasion will be marked by a release show at our city’s newest venue, The Stage at Karma, that night.
It’s something worth celebrating. The Soil and the Seed is a spellbinding, deeply passionate, gorgeously textured record. Powerful, vulnerable, refreshing, and honest, it’s an example of what happens when finely honed musical skill and intuition meet raw, undeniable soul.
With three prominent vocalists, sporadic use of percussion, an upright bassist, a dedicated mandolin player, and a separate concertina/dobro player (similar to an accordion and a steel guitar, respectively), it’s safe to say that Buffalo Rose defies simple categorization. Elements of folk, soul, and bluegrass blend into something amorphously Americana, but decidedly their own. “I like feeling like we are subverting genre in a sense,” explains vocalist/songwriter Lucy Clabby. “It’s very easy to look at our instrumentation and arrangement format and call us a ‘folk’ group. But the thing about folk art is that it is also pop art, which is to say, the people’s art. It can be whatever it means to you and it doesn’t have to sound or feel quite like anything else. That’s even better!”
Throughout the record, stunning vocal harmonies shine over dynamic, engrossing layers of stringed instruments. Occasional touches such as light percussion, keys, harmonica, electronic delay/distortion, and reverb vocal effects add striking dimension. A sharp sense of rhythmic experimentation and evocative, storytelling lyricism complete the package. From the old-school spiritual vibe of the jaunty opener, “God Willing,” to the lush, immersive closing track “Simone,” there’s a warm authenticity that emanates from this group. You can tell that they mean what they say, and that they feel it deeply.
Not just that—they make you feel it too. Whether it’s the raw vulnerability summed up in the simple, passionate plea of “Hold Me;” the contemplative, mournful, howling energy of “Natural Disaster” (where those electronic effects add incredible power); or the lighthearted self-aware silliness of the lilting, mandolin-heavy “The River Song,” Buffalo Rose has a knack for every little touch it takes to bring you to that place with them. It’s the kind of intuition that can be honed, but not taught. And it’s the kind of intuition that will keep you coming back to this album time and time again.
The band consists of Clabby on vocals and harmonica, Shane McLaughlin on vocals and guitar, Mariko Reid on vocals, Jason Rafalak on upright bass, Malcolm “Mac” Inglis on dobro and concertina, and Bryce Rabideau on mandolin. Special guest musicians on the record include Brad Yoder on glockenspiel, Ryan Socrates on percussion, Max Somerville on keyboards and organ, Ray Defade on drums, and Joey Schuller on banjo.
(It’s worth noting that all of these guests will be playing at the release show, which, according to the group, “will probably never happen again.” Angela Autumn will also be opening up, accompanied by a full band.)
This record has been in the making for a while, despite the group’s relatively recent genesis. “Buffalo Rose got together to film a video for the FoundSound Songwriter series,” explains vocalist/guitarist/songwriter McLaughlin. “FoundSound had been putting out this fantastic content with a lot of Pittsburgh’s musicians, and I asked Mariko, Lucy, and Mac to film the tune ‘Mama Have Mercy.’ Before the video was shot, we knew that this was something we had to keep doing together.” He continues, “Before too long, we added Bryce and Jason, who have really filled out our sound and have brought a depth of musical knowledge and expertise to the band.”
That video was posted on May 1st, 2016, and their debut four-track EP, Red Wagon, came out just six months later. Between then and now, fans have had to make do with live performances and one single, “The Last One,” which dropped in September 2017. Clabby says, “Some of the songs on the album were being written even before the band formed. But from our first day in the studio until now, it’s been a full year of work recording these tracks.”
She goes on, “[The process was] a love-hate kind of thing. Late nights in the studio, take after take of the same songs, becomes very taxing. But it’s so gratifying. After one of those long nights of recording, we sleep good.” McLaughlin agrees: “At times it was really fun. Other times it could be stressful and frustrating. It’s really interesting to see songs take a new shape as you record them.”
Their effort, and the fans’ patience, has paid off. A track-by-track breakdown would make this impossibly long, so I’ll mention some highlights. A key factor in The Soil and the Seed’s success is the band’s willingness to take those new shapes. They’re not one-trick ponies: electronic, psychedelic, and ambient influences are all incorporated somewhere, to great effect. This is especially true on “Hold Me,” “Natural Disaster,” and “The Journey.” It was really cool to be occasionally surprised with a risk, with a new direction.
And it’d be impossible to overemphasize just how incredible the vocals are on this record. Reid’s soprano voice is angelic, reaching into the sky while remaining soft and soulful. It shines particularly well in the mournful “Virginia Rain,” the upbeat “Blue Skies,” and the feisty “The Last One.” Clabby (who you have may have heard before as the lead singer of Memphis Hill) is a powerhouse. She sings with staggering passion and range, especially on the eighth track, “Natural Disaster.” McLaughlin’s voice is warm, welcoming, and powerful in its own right. He takes the lead on a few songs—with gusto on “God Willing,” and from a softer, more intimate place on “Buffalo Rose” and “Honey.” All in all, it’s a magic formula: three singers who complement each other perfectly, can each hold their own solo, and whose harmonies consistently wow you.
Not to downplay the rest of the band. The skill and intricacy with which the various stringed instruments are layered on top of one another is impressive, both as a whole and individually. Inglis, Rabideau, and Rafalak are all essential to the album’s rich texture, as is McLaughlin’s guitar. And they all get time to shine.
I have a few favorite songs, but if I had to pick just one, it’d be the second track, “Poison Oak.” It’s the kind of emotional, heavy-hitting ballad you’d expect to find towards the end of a record. But Buffalo Rose sets the bar high, showing you what you’re in for right away. Slow, subdued acoustic guitar puts the emphasis on Clabby’s low, soulful voice and the poignant words she sings: “Oh, woah/ain’t that just the way it goes?/The way back home/always seems, so much longer/Oh, woah/Everybody knows, we break our bones/but they grow back, stronger.” The harmonica lines she plays are a perfect atmospheric addition. But it’s the lyrics closer to the end that really bring it home for me: “When we said goodbye in the kitchen/Thought that I would die, but I just, didn’t/My broken heart grew legs and started runnin’/I opened up the blinds and let the sun in/I opened up the blinds and let the sun in/Let’s open up the blinds and let the sun in.”
The album’s title, though accurate, is incomplete. The Soil and the Seed is also warm and sunny, and it flows as intuitively and smoothly as the ‘river’ that’s sung about more than once. With all these elements combined, the results are no surprise: songs with deep roots, that grow organically and unapologetically. To adapt a line from “Simone,” they keep on pointin’ towards the sun.
I asked the band how they would describe their sound to someone who’s never heard them before. McLaughlin kept it simple: “Not ‘cher Momma’s bluegrass.” Clabby, however, got a bit more specific: “Like a wolf made friends with a bird and they stole a covered wagon and started an organic farm.”
Strange as that may sound, it’s spot-on. But don’t just take our words for it. Do yourself a favor and take a good listen to The Soil and the Seed. Who knows? It just might help you feel a little closer to spring.
The release show is happening Friday night, March 30th, at The Stage at Karma. VIP tickets are sold out, but some general admission tickets ($10 in advance/$12 doors) are still available here. Find out more at the Facebook event page.
The album drops on Friday as well. It will be available on major music streaming/download platforms. Make sure you’re following Buffalo Rose on Spotify, Bandcamp, and Facebook. And check out their submission to this year’s NPR Tiny Desk Contest below (or by clicking here.)