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  The A-List (1995-2001) 
Artist: Erik Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet
Label: Fundamental Records

Why should “A Prairie Home Companion” have all the good music? Why should that be the only place to find quirky, wry, acoustic-based singer/songwriter music played in ensemble by multitalented musicians? Does Garrison Keillor have a corner on odes to St. Paul? Hardly. The inspirations may be obvious, but Erik Brandt’s take on that successful national-public “sound” is as fresh as any PHC regular, except the Urban Hillbilly Quartet is much funnier with far more spiritual roots.

Touring indefatigably whenever he can break away from teaching high schoolers words like “indefatigable” as an English teacher for years,  Erik Brandt and UHQ are always a delightful discovery for audiences. But the financial realities of indie-hood limit the live, full band experience and that public radio national debut is yet to happen.

Brandt & company have taken the bold move with The A-List of releasing all of their best live material on a single CD. This is no substitute for a face-to-face encounter at a coffee house near you, but the fifteen songs on this disc are their best live numbers and these takes are well produced from a variety of live appearances.

Somebody slip Garrison a copy. Better yet, who is ready to make the UHQ their radio show’s house band? 

Linda LaFianza 1/30/04

Song list

1.Living in the City
2. Indelible
3. Adrift
4. Stars Look Down
5. Hot Veca
6. Nightmares
7. St. Paul Town
8. This Train
9. Drowsy Maggie - Vlashko
10. Angel From Montgomery
11. Skipping Stones
12. Moonstruck
13. Amy's Ring Waltz
14. Been There Before
15. Happy Anyway

Part of the fun of listening to the Urban Hillbilly Quartet is spotting the musical influences which make up their indefinable and unique sound. The musical threads are multifarious- country,rock, jazz, blues, folk, Eastern-European, I reckon there's even a hint of Scottish caleidh band in there; all sewn together seamlessly into something akin to Joseph's many-colored coat perhaps. Look under the collar though and you'll still see the mark of St Paul, Minnesota, indelibly marked for it is here the band has its origins and this coat is cut from the finest Mid-Western American cloth no doubt. 

If you've never heard the Urban Hillbilly Quartet before (join the crowd),  then there's no better place to start than this joyous collection of fifteen songs taken from their previous recordings plus a couple of remixes and a cast-off from their last album, Amelia's Boot . Highlights include "Indelible" featuring some of the hottest fiddle playing this side of Carrie Rodriguez by Sena Thompson; the sweaty, live recording of "This Train" where the band are positively dripping an eclectic blues;and the beautiful instrumental "Amy's Ring Waltz."  

The creative force behind the band is the articulate and modest Eric Brandt, who demonstrates his mastery of a variety of instruments including the accordion on several tracks with some solid support from Greg Tippet on bass, which allows the stellar playing of electric guitarist Jeremy Szopinski and fiddle player Thompson to take center stage. No wonder then that this band is not afraid to jam and some of the finest moments on the album occur during the extended instrumental sections on the live tracks.

Erik Brandt undertook a short UK tour last year with ace banjo player Dave Strahan and if you didn't make it to one of the shows then now is your chance to catch up on what you missed. Once you are up to date with the band, go get Amelia's Boot and see how the band has progressed and matured; and wonder with me why they're still not better known.

Ronnie Payne 2/26/2004

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