Berklee Riffs: The Boston Boys Go Beyond Bluegrass

Danielle Dreilinger
November 10, 2010
Eric Robertson and the Boston Boys play a wild and woolly late-night set at the Middle East Rock Club on September 21. Left to right: violinist Alex Hargreaves, the new Jimmy Lyons scholar; Robertson on mandolin; and guitarist Stash Wyslouch '10.
A summer 2010 gig at the Boothbay Harbor Opera House with student Duncan Wickel on fiddle.
Photo by Riley Boone
Photo by Garrett Ellison

In Berklee's ocean of talent, it can take time to find the place that's yours alone. And it gets all the more challenging as semester by semester, each student encounters ever more genres, forms, and musical ideas. But the influx can also mean creative opportunities for artists who aren't afraid to take it all in.

Eric Robertson and the Boston Boys are surfing that wave. Once a bluegrass band with an attitude named after a Bill Monroe tune, the Boston Boys now get their groove from D'Angelo—as evidenced by the response from the crowd at the Middle East September 21.

"Don't be fooled, folks," guitarist Stash Wyslouch '10 said from the stage at the famed Cambridge, Massachusetts rock club. "You may see us play an Americana festival but we're not an Americana band." Later he called Robertson's playing "soul mandolin."

With two fiddles, an upright bass, mandolin, acoustic guitar, and drums, the Boys retained the warm roughness of bluegrass, like felt, in their sonic texture. But when they dipped back into songs from their 2009 debut, Listen, they reinvented them.

That's the idea. Robertson remains one of the college's go-to students for bluegrass and roots-rock. But as he's worked with faculty percussionist Jamey Haddad and studied various world musics, complex rhythms, shifting time signatures, and a funk heartbeat have taken over his music. Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley portraits hang on his bedroom wall right next to Bill Monroe.

Though some might consider bluegrass and neosoul to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, "I think there's a connection," Robertson said after the show. Artists like Erykah Badu, he pointed out, have brought a back-to-basics earthiness back into r&b and hip-hop. "It's really a new generation. It's an iTunes generation. These walls are starting to not exist."

The set didn't start 'til midnight, but Robertson had the energy of a thousand suns. Wyslouch strummed a solo so fast his hand was a blur. Still, the Boys seemed relaxed. Virtuosity was a tool, not the whole kit 'n' caboodle. Fiddlers Alex Hargreaves—Berklee's new Jimmy Lyons jazz scholar—and Duncan Wickel leaned on the notes. Bassist Aaron Darrell and drummer Vishal Nyack '10 kept the music rooted. Robertson's snappy lyrics danced on top of the groove: "trapped like a ship inside a bottle / stuck like a Pinto in a pothole. . . you are that dish you're washing / you are the bridge you're crossing."

(On any given night, the Boys draw a cast of in-demand players; after Robertson graduates in May, he plans to settle on a full-time lineup.)

As the set progressed and the clock melted, audience members grabbed each other's hands and twirled all the more wildly. The Boys' last song ended with a bow-shredding twin fiddle solo, straight out of a Texas competition—as if to show they could.

Look for the Boston Boys on the festival scene—if you can recognize them. Who knows what they'll sound like then? But the school of dancers out front should give it away.