Foggy Hogtown Boys pickin and grinnin 

Bluegrass band earning accolades for talent and commitment to the genre

Who: Foggy Hogtown Boys

Where: MY Millennium Place

When: March 8

Full disclosure: I went to high school with Andrew Collins and Chris Coole, two-fifths of the Foggy Hogtown Boys.

But that’s not why I’m a fan of their music – good is good, and FHB and its members truly border on greatness. You can’t go to a live show and not be blown away by their sheer musical talent, as well as their sincere commitment to a genre of music that doesn’t always get the most attention.

If you’re not familiar with the genre in question, the FHB are a traditional bluegrass band – think soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou , only played a lot faster.

FHB have proved they can pick and grin, and play and sing the traditional standards with the best of them, but where the Boys really shine is through their original songs and improvised solos.

"There’s always improvisation with (live) bluegrass, it’s inherent to the music," explains Coole, who plays guitar and sings on many of FHB’s songs. "You can play the same traditional songs over and over, and it can sound different every time. There’s always room to move, which is one of the reasons so many great musicians are drawn to it."

The FHP have a following all their own in Toronto and are slowly creeping into bigger and better venues based almost entirely on word of mouth – and favourable reviews from every music critic who’s ever experienced a live show.

They’re also starting to tour a little more at the request of festival organizers across the country, and in support of their new CD, Northern White Clouds – a 100 per cent Canadian-content bluegrass album that proves you don’t have to come from Appalachia to produce that authentic high lonesome sound.

There are 13 tracks on Northern White Clouds , all but two written by band members. They do one cover of Lily Hoskins by Canada’s Mike O’Reilly, and another cover of Sundown by Gordon Lightfoot. The album is professionally produced, and gets across the talents of the band members quite nicely.

"It’s a project that I’ve put a lot of myself into," said Coole. "I wrote a lot of the songs. So far it’s been really well received, we’ve gotten good reviews from a lot of Canadian music magazines, but also from some American bluegrass magazines as well, which has us pretty excited.

"It’s good because there’s this stigma (with bluegrass). It was originally played by people in the southern states and Appalachia, all the original musicians were from there, so for someone from another country and another culture to play it, and get praise for it, is pretty humbling for us."

For the true FHB experience, you still have to see a live show. Playing for an audience really brings out the band’s raw musicianship and sense of humour.

When they’re not on tour or following festivals, the Foggy Hogtown Boys play a regular Saturday show at the Brunswick House in Toronto.

The various band members also have other projects on the go.

For example, Chris Coole is also one fifth of Crazy Strings, a band that has played a regular Wednesday night gig at the Silver Dollar Saloon in Toronto for the than four years, usually to capacity crowds. He also plays regular shows with his partner Erynn Marshall, and has so far produced three albums where he plays clawhammer banjo.

Mandolin player Andrew Collins is another fifth of Crazy Strings, as well as part of the Juno-nominated Creaking Tree String Quartet. Creaking Tree plays jazzy instrumental bluegrass in the style of Bela Fleck and John Grisman, and were a huge hit when they came to Whistler last year. Collins has also released a CD of duets with Creaking Tree guitarist Marc Roy.

Chris Quinn plays banjo for the Foggy Hogtown Boys, and is yet another fifth of Crazy Strings. He was also a member of Juno-nominated Heartbreak Hill, and played with Coole on an all-banjo CD called Banjo Special .

John McNaughton is the band’s bass player and tenor voice, and his sole focus these days is the Foggy Hogtown Boys, although he sessions with a lot of Toronto musicians. Now Magazine, Toronto’s Georgia Straight, picked McNaughton as the city’s best male vocalist in their annual awards.

John Showman plays fiddle for the FHB, and is a member of the Creaking Tree String Quartet with Collins. He can play any style of music, which is why he’s in such demand as a session musician.

All of the band members also teach music, and during the eastern part of their West Coast tour the FHB will be conducting a workshop for the Kootenay Bluegrass Society.

The Foggy Hogtown Boys are playing Whistler, MY Millennium Place, on March 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17 for adults, or $13 for students and seniors. Call Ticketmaster at 604-935-8410.

For more on the Boys, and their upcoming tour, visit www.foggyhogtownboys.com.

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