Earlier this year, just off the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a young Canadian
bluegrass outfit was taking the stage at the Jacob’s Ladder Festival for the
first time – in 2013, that is. At the ages of 22 and 20, this was the Abrams
Brothers’ fourth time headlining the festival since 2007, when they had still
routinely shared the stage with other family members.
Back then, even as
cherub-faced adolescents, the brothers had come to Israel as accomplished,
seasoned musicians who for years had toured extensively around the United States
during summers off from school, spring break and weekends. They even performed
at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in 2005, making them the youngest Canadians ever
to do so (an oft-cited fact that still bears repeating).
At that point,
the Abrams Brothers’ style had been pure, straight-ahead bluegrass: They played
a raft of traditional covers, and there were no electric instruments or
percussion in sight.
Now, armed with a wealth of original material, they
perform a sharply executed blend of bluegrass – what John calls the “root” of
their music – and heavy doses of rock and folk, which demand a more modernized
sound that necessarily breaks the unwritten rules of the genre. At Jacob’s
Ladder, for instance, they were backed by bassist Jason Mercer and drummer Cam
“I think it was important that we focused on bluegrass growing
up, being able to really excel at one discipline,” says John.
now, when we create our own music, we have a general sort of guideline as to how
we want to go about that.” But their influences are diverse, he says, and
“playing with drums or playing with upright or electric bass – sort of a more
rock style – it’s just natural for our generation.”
The frenzied young’ns
in the dance section next to the Jacob’s Ladder stage would probably attest to
this. As John (on guitar) and James (on fiddle, banjo and piano) strummed,
finger-picked, harmonized, jumped and head-banged on stage, a sea of long hair,
beards, peasant skirts, cowboy hats and Aladdin-style pants bobbed, leapt and
twirled down below.
“I think in order for bluegrass to continue to grow,
it shouldn’t be preserved,” says John, who started on violin at age nine and
picked up a few other instruments before more settling primarily on guitar in
more recent years. “Any time somebody tries to put some sort of preservation on
art, it usually stays with that age group or it just stays in the
“There’s no such thing as ‘corrupting the art,’” he
Younger brother James, who began playing at age six and writing
songs at around nine, describes the path away from rigid bluegrass structures as
a natural process of sorts. Earlier on, he says, he had been surrounded by an
abundance of simple, “very straight,” major-key bluegrass tunes – and that
“forced” him to want to write in the minor key and generally stretch the limits
of the genre.
John notes they’re also exploring music that “has a lot of
space,” like Coldplay-style atmospheric rock – most obvious in their intriguing
bluegrass-flavored rendition of the Coldplay hit “Viva La Vida,” off The Abrams
Brothers’ 2011 release Northern Redemption.
“I think that’s where we really kind
of try to take bluegrass and open it up a little bit,” John says. “Bluegrass is
usually, in its traditional form, very direct music.”
Yet because it is
“already such a pulsing acoustic music,” he says, they “saw a natural fit – a
harmony” between that style and “the arena-rock drum beat that pulses forward,”
he says, demonstrating by slapping a driving beat on his knee for a measure or
All in all, John says, their latest original material “feels most
like our music – it’s music we were sort of meant to play.”
to the very beginning of their musical development, gospel is “really where we
come from,” says John. Their father Brian, a lawyer-turned-judge, had been
rooted in that style as a musician before he gravitated toward bluegrass later
in life – which he then passed on to his sons. “And of course the harmonies in
Southern gospel music relate a lot to bluegrass harmonies. So there was a
natural fit there when we started playing bluegrass.”
For the brothers,
music “has always been a family thing,” says James. “I feel like my musical
future... is with us working together.
And I think that anything outside
of that wouldn’t feel right to me.”
These days, says James, the brothers
write “constantly” in emulation of other prolific artists who produce great
songs. He particularly cites the example of Arlo Guthrie, who penned the liner
notes for The Abrams Brothers’ 2008 album Blue on Brown
, a tribute to Guthrie
and Bob Dylan – the making of which initially sparked the brothers to begin
writing their own material in earnest.
“It’s very much a collaboration,”
says James on the songwriting process. “We do everything else together. And so
why not write together?” The brothers still live in their hometown of Kingston,
Ontario, where both attend Queens University – and neither is studying music.
John is focusing on film and English, while James is going for economics and
biology. “I did miss that element, [using] that side of my brain,” James
Given his need to play several instruments, James still drills
on the fiddle, banjo, piano and bass whenever he has time – “whenever I’m not
eating or learning.” At the same time, he emphasizes that performing, in
whatever form it takes, is a crucial form of practice and education in
“I suggest this to anyone who’s even starting: When you learn
your instrument to the point where you can perform, perform as soon and as often
The Abrams Brothers have certainly followed that credo.
Yet, even with all the years of touring they have under their belts, John calls
the Jacob’s Ladder Festival “one of [our favorites] if not our favorite festival
to play in the world. And I do not say that to everybody.”
“feels like a big family,” he says, with “beautiful, wonderful
Beyond that, for these devout Christians, Israel carries “a
wonderful significance to our background, to our faith, to many faiths,” he
“The fact that I could sit last night and play charades with my
friends with my feet in the Sea of Galilee – having grown up in Sunday school,
reading these stories, hearing this history – there’s a whole other level of
profound when it comes to playing this festival specifically,” he
Toward the end of their second and final performance here, John
asked the audience whether they could come back again. Predictably, the crowd
roared its happy assent.
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