One might think it would be a big problem if your band’s name is Miss Tess & The Bon Ton Parade and the most troublesome issue with your band is the person actually named Miss Tess. But in the case of the New York-based quartet’s latest effort, “Live Across The Mason Dixon Line,” such a problem isn’t nearly as glaring when one considers how exceptional the end product proves to be.
Tess, who has spent a huge chunk of her music career based in Baltimore, isn’t a bad singer and/or songwriter by any stretch of the imagination. Her addiction to 6/8 time signatures and waltz-based grooves are a bit refreshing, and both the occasional dip into slow blues music and the bopping jazz refrains prove that the singer and her band are a cut above most other local acts.
So, what’s the problem? Her voice. It’s too thin. Where you might expect the singer to power her way through the delicate calypso swing of “Riding Home” or the country-western twang of “Darling, Oh Darling,” she simply comes up noticeably short. And it’s a shame, too. Because with a rounded-out vocal performance that would pack even half the punch of an off-night from Beyonce or Adele, “Live Across The Mason Dixon Line” could be a true break-out release for a band on the verge of headlining summer music festivals with the likes of The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons.
But disappointingly, it is not to be. Instead, this double-disc set that features two live shows — one a performance in Cambridge, Mass., and another from Decatur, Ga. — is a frustrating showcase for a set of fantastic musicians (including Tess, who plays a mean electric guitar) who demand (and should receive) the respect and attention of those who are listening.
“Train Ride to Caroline” is a fun, up-tempo party of a song that plows ahead with the ferocity of an Amtrak. Drummer Matt Meyer plays conductor while his quick stick work introduces the song in a fascinatingly creative manner as he emulates the beginning sounds of a train taking off with heavy brushes and a loosely tuned snare drum. The newgrass touch that the song eventually falls into makes for a highly entertaining journey any listener might never want to end.
“Riding Home” slows things down with its lounge-style blues that accentuates the guitar chops of Raphael McGregor on disc one and Will Graefe on its counterpart. Miss Tess, herself, even provides as much soul as her voice can seemingly manage, offering up one of the more successful vocal tracks this two-disc set offers.
Massachusetts’ “That 00 00 00” and Georgia’s “Everybody’s Darling” are modern-day swing music at its best. The former proves Tess can scat — though not sing, mind you — with the best of them while the latter reminds us all why we miss the ’90s ragtime outfit Squirrel Nut Zippers.
The problem with “Live Across The Mason Dixon Line” isn’t that it’s not good. The problem is that it’s not good enough. The questionable decision to make this a double-disc set notwithstanding (a few songs appear on both discs in an almost identical head-scratching fashion), this is a really good introduction to a group of musicians who can honestly say the sky is the limit. Musically, each member displays any unparalleled technical ability that makes any music geek salivate at the thought of seeing them perform. And together, they add up to produce some of the most interesting swing/blues/folk hybrids anyone could possibly come across locally.
But considering Miss Tess & The Bon Ton Parade could very well combine to form something that might easily surpass a mere “interesting” label, this two-CD live set proves to be a bit of a let down. “Live Across The Mason Dixon Line” is pretty darn good. The trouble is that it could be pretty darn great.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***