04/17/2015, SubCulture, New York, NY

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April Verch steps, sings, and fiddles with a fresh and feisty approach to deep North American traditions.  Touring the world to share songs from her milestone 10th album (The Newpart), Verch and her band - featuring bassist and clawhammer banjo player Cody Walters and guitarist Alex Rubin - keep ...

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Ron Kadish

Found in the Shuffle: April Verch Dances (and Fiddles and Sings) Deeper into North American Roots Music on The Newpart and on Tour

Fiddler, singer, and stepdancer April Verch knows how relevant an old tune can be. She grew up surrounded by living, breathing roots music—her father’s country band rehearsing in the “Newpart,” the beloved Verch family room; the lively music at church and at community dances; the tunes she rocked out to win fiddle competitions—and decided early she wanted to be a professional musician.

She took that leap, and has been quietly leaping into new, nuanced places for more than two decades. Moving from exuberant stepdancer to fiddle wunderkind and silver-voiced singer, Verch may still spend many a fond hour rehearsing in the Newpart, when at home and not on tour, but like tradition itself, she has never been content to stand still. “When you really know and love this music,” Verch reflects, “you want to go deeper, to bring out new dimensions, without straying too much into novelty.”

Now on her milestone 10th album The Newpart (release: April 7, 2015), with producer Casey Driessen, Verch digs deep into songs and tunes from the era before the often-mined mid-century heyday of bluegrass and folk. Harkening back to vaudeville and beyond, Verch and her fellow trio members pare down their arrangements, highlighting the simple pleasures of upright bass, guitar, clawhammer banjo, mandolin, voices, fiddle, and stepping in intimate conversation. At the heart lie Verch’s delicate voice, energetic footwork, and stunning playing, a trifecta of talents she brings together simultaneously for the first time on stage and on The Newpart. It all works to insist that, “these songs don’t need to be revived,” Verch exclaims. “They are timeless. They are still very much alive and relevant.”

The album’s title pays tribute to a special space in the Verch family home, where old meets new. The house, a one-room schoolhouse her parents attended, received a new addition the same year Verch was born. It was dubbed “The Newpart." With the exception of the large collection of trophies April and her sister won for their music and dancing, it hasn’t changed much over the years, right down to the 70's shag carpet. To Verch, it’s the perfect symbol of family, tradition, and music, the things she values most: “It’s the place we gather to jam, to practice songs for family baptisms, funerals, and weddings. It’s where I practiced countless hours and wrote many tunes, including the songs on this album. It’s where we take family pictures, visit and entertain our guests. It’s the most special place in the house, the scene of my most cherished memories.”

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Many years ago, Verch was up on stage at the county fiddlers’ monthly dance event in her native Ottawa Valley. She was a darling among the fiddlers there, a cute kid who could play beautifully, and the more seasoned players encouraged her. But April noticed something: “When I played a waltz, even though I had decent tone and technique, the floor didn’t fill up. At the urging of my Dad, I began to listen to the way elder fiddlers played, and watched how, even if they were a little scratchy, they got people dancing.”

Verch marked that lesson well, even as she plays with the tradition she inherited. She keeps the community-fired celebratory side of her music at the forefront, honing a keen awareness of how to engage contemporary listeners. With ten albums and years of touring under her belt, Verch has moved from upstart prodigy to mature and reflective songwriter, interpreter, and storyteller.

Verch realized, for example, as she worked on her new arrangement of bluegrass legend and fellow stepdancer John Hartford’s “Bring Your Clothes Back Home,” that she needed to shift the shuffle, a basic stepdancing move, from its usual beat. The result: the more intimate feel she craved, that Hartford had delivered in a stripped-down performance Verch loved. “You don’t have to be complex or insanely novel to add another dimension to the material,” Verch notes. “A simple shuffle and the way you use it, can highlight a certain rhythm, and provide the groove that a percussionist might.”

Verch’s inspiration often comes from unexpected quarters: the mix made by a dedicated fan or regional music aficionado (how Verch discovered many of great Old-Time American tunes in her repertoire), a field recording played in the tour van that left Verch and her two trio-mates (guitarist Hayes Griffin and banjo/bassist Cody Walters) dumbstruck. The rough blues gems, the ballads with roosters crowing and dinner cooking in the background: Old recordings often touch Verch, Griffin, and Walters profoundly.

Many of the sourced pieces on The Newpart stem from Dust to Digital’s striking collection of early 20th-century recordings, rare glimpses of the world of American popular music before World War II, when vaudeville and other lost styles still held sway. The styles may be old, but the feelings are fresh; sentiments in songs like “If You Hadn’t Gone Away” and “Montana Call” still ring true today.

Spare, raw recordings present their own special challenges, opportunities that Verch and her band mates embrace as they get to the heart of the song. “Dry Bones” was a free-flowing solo performance, just voice and banjo. Verch wanted to keep the rhythmic feel, but had to incorporate the whole trio while keeping their version moving forward. “I listened to the original repeatedly and then made up my own version in my head,” recalls Verch, “then we tweaked it as a trio. We made the last verse a bit more uneven, a little tribute to the original.”

Older renditions, captured in the middle of family or community life, often follow their own structure, their own musical logic. “Cruel Willie” was buried deep in background hubbub and had a wild series of changing sections. “When we were learning and arranging it together, I realized we could play all three parts of the tune simultaneously on our various instruments, and it worked,” Verch says. “So that’s what we did the final time through.  We also mix up the parts of the tune throughout just like our source did.  Not knowing what part is going to come next adds a certain flavor to the tune you can’t accomplish any other way and was one of the things that drew us to the tune in the first place.”

Putting together unexpected pieces comes easily to Verch, as “Midnight Wheeler” proves, an organic move from a Virginia fiddle tune (“Midnight Serenade”) to a more “crooked” (uneven meter) métis Canadian tune (“Stern Wheeler”). Or the trio’s lovely “Polska from Kumla,” a tune Verch picked up at a Swedish jam session that eases wonderfully into the old-time and other North American traditions.

On this tenth album, Verch pushed gently but surely beyond her comfort zone, thanks to her fellow Berklee College of Music-alum and The Newpart producer and engineer, Casey Driessen. “Casey nudged me in many ways, including the idea to write something just for my feet,” she recounts with a smile. “He asked, ‘Why haven’t you done this yet?’ It was really fascinating to me when I started working on it. What works visually is completely different when it’s only audio. What I thought was a great move turned out to be way less effective when you couldn’t see the step. It forced me to think of my feet as purely an instrument playing music, and to find new ways to accomplish that goal.”

Driessen and Verch started experimenting: Driessen built a platform for Verch to dance on, a wooden structure he could mic many ways, including from underneath. She tried different steps, as well as metal, wooden, and leather taps to get different percussive effects. It worked beautifully, enhancing Verch’s first solo footwork piece (“Gilchrist,” named for Ottawa Valley stepdancing master Donnie Gilchrist) and her first times playing fiddle, singing, and stepping at once.

Driessen was equally instrumental in prodding Verch to tie together the loose ends of several originals, songs, and tunes that she sent to him in snippets from rough voice memos she’d made over the course of several years, including the tribute to the music-making room that gave the album its title. (And yes, she completed these compositions in The Newpart.)

Yet Verch never forgets the roots of her music, that connection to the people out there in the audience, on the dance floor, to the community sparked by a good song. It’s about doing less to engage more. “I’ve lived with these songs and tunes, and my job is to get out of the way and let them hit the listener. To let them shine on their own and to leave space for interpretation,” Verch muses. “It’s all about touching people, about bringing them together in a community to celebrate music. I’ve understood that better and better as time has passed: how to take this music that is at the center of my life, and make it live and breathe for other people.”

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