THE SWEET LOWDOWN have been reviewed/featured in: The Bluegrass Situation, No Depression, Bluegrass Unlimited, Music News Nashville, Fiddler Magazine, For The Country Record, Country Standard Time, PopMatters, fRoots Magazine (UK), Penguin Eggs, Rhythms Magazine (Australia), FolkWords (UK), Maverick Magazine (UK), FATEA Magazine (UK), R2 Magazine (UK), Roots Music Report, Earshot Magazine, Americana UK, among others.
PENGUIN EGGS “Chasing The Sun” Album Review by Mike Sadava, Winter 2015
I don’t know what’s better here—the melodies or the harmonies?
Victoria’s The Sweet Lowdown just keeps getting better at both, and
it’s a pleasure to hear this stringband trio of women continue to
Their musical sensibilities are impeccable, both in the songwriting
and composition of instrumentals in their blend of bluegrass,
old-time, and modern folk music. The group is set apart by the
harmonies, but don’t discount their instrumental prowess. Banjoist
Shanti Bremer is equally adept at both the Scruggs rolls and
clawhammer style, while Miriam Sontenes is becoming one of the most
in-demand fiddlers on the West Coast, at least when she’s home.
Amanda Blied’s solid guitar picking and rich voice and fine
songwriting round out the band.
Their songs are full of lush imagery, usually about their mutual love
of nature, which is easy on Vancouver Island. My favourite is
Blied’s You Can Find The North, about feeling exiled coming from the
countryside to the city.
The only thing lacking here are a couple of burning fast tunes, of
which they are more than capable. But you can’t have everything in
SONGLINES MAGAZINE “Chasing The Sun” Album Review (Issue 109 – July 2015)
The Sweet Lowdown – Chasing The Sun
“More proof Canada is America’s spiritual home”
Trilling banjo and strummed guitar, expressive fiddle lines and the purest close-harmony vocals: Chasing the Sun opens with a gorgeous, light-filled song that, paradoxically, is about a flooded town and environmental concerns. It is an auspicious start to the third studio album from this Vancouver Island-based vocal and instrumental trio: Amanda Blied on guitar, Shanti Bremer on banjo and Miriam Sonstenes on fiddle.
Like other bands from this region, they are inspired by the natural environment and beauty of British Columbia. But musically the trio pull together styles from across North America – bluegrass and country most strongly, due to Bremer’s banjo – to create their own, original roots music. Lead vocals are shared and songwriting is split equally (only one track isn’t an original), leading to satisfying stylistic and atmospheric breadth. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of The Sweet Lowdown’s music is their singing, however. The a capella tune ‘Leaving’ is spine-tingling in its mournful stillness. Final track ‘The Rain’, composed by a friend of the group, juxtaposes the solo verses with group-sung chorus, to soulful effect. Appropriately, this album is built from music of warmth and beauty, skillfully performed. Track To Try: River Winding Down
FIDDLER MAGAZINE “Chasing The Sun” Album Review, Spring 2015
This trio of ladies from British Columbia is a force to be reckoned with. They sing with great skill and play with aplomb. Amanda Blied sings lead and plays guitar. Shanti Bremer plays banjo in several styles, equally adept in bluegrass and clawhammer, and able to cruise in jig time and waltz time as easily as she does on a hot breakdown. Fiddler Miriam Sonstenes slides through the styles with ease and skill, at home with a bow in her hand. All three of them can sing, making a wonderful sound in the process.
There are some great songs as well as some interesting and genre-bending tunes. The title cut is a dreamy soundscape. “April 29th” is a western alternative to those Appalachian tunes like “28th of January,” interesting and very different. They also have a tune, “Bunching Up the Sheets,” in contrast to the old gem “Folding Down the Sheets”. The medley on track ten is a jewel with great playing by all as they romp through the tunes.
There are standout songs like “You Can Find The North” and the a cappella “Leaving,” and then the driving bluegrass of “Road Song.” They take you on a road trip in the gentle sounds of acoustic folk, flavored with some great fiddling, vocals, and some very nice banjo picking. This one is a keeper.
FOLK RADIO UK “Chasing The Sun” Album Review, May 2015
Only last summer, I belatedly discovered this Canadian trio’s excellent third album May, which by then was close on a year old; so I profoundly regretted having missed out on their 2014 UK tour. I’ve kinda made up for that by getting hold of their latest offering Chasing The Sun just as soon as I heard of its release. And I’m glad to report that it’s every bit as good, with further unassuming displays of typically confident songwriting and intuitive musicianship of the exact correct sensibility for their chosen musical idiom – which in this case is a captivating and vital blend of old-time, bluegrass and folk music.
Each member of the trio is a charismatic solo singer in her own right (tho’ not necessarily in the bluegrass field originally), but when they combine in harmony the bar is sure raised, and the softly passionate a cappella lament of Leaving (one of a number of tracks penned by the group’s fiddle player Miriam Sonstenes – the others, perhaps unbelievably, are instrumentals!) is a definite disc standout: it sure stopped me in my tracks. Original songwriting (and tunesmithery) is increasingly the cornerstone of The Sweet Lowdown’s music; this new record finds guitarist Amanda Blied contributing three songs, and banjoist Shanti Bremer a further three songs and a tune, the remaining track being a cover of The Rain by the group’s friend Zane Parker.
Highlight tracks? Perhaps The Birds And The Bees (a joyous celebration of spring and such matters), the brooding, foreboding Fallout (a commentary on the legacy of the 2012 Fukushima nuclear disaster), the fancy-free Road Song, and almost any one of the disc’s four spiritful instrumental outings (probably April 29th, or the ebullient breakdown-and-jigs medley). The sheer exuberance of the trio’s playing is infectious albeit expertly controlled, and you rarely feel the need for any further embellishment; even so, they do bring in some musician friends very occasionally, including Sam Howard who does sterling duty on upright bass for around half of the album’s tracks. Digipack presentation and design/artwork are most appealing too, making the whole product eminently desirable.
Don’t hesitate to catch The Sweet Lowdown live when they next get over here – in the meantime, this new album will keep your CD machine well occupied and very likely locked on repeat play.
R2 MAGAZINE (UK) “Chasing The Sun” Album Review, March 2015
Hailing from Victoria, Canada, The Sweet Lowdown is a female trio whose love of bluegrass and old-time music ignites their ear-grabbing original material. Add to this gorgeous three-part harmonies and it’s no surprise that their last album, May, earned them plaudits and awards in 2013.
Chasing The Sun looks well set to follow this success. Though steeped in tradition, there is nothing quaint or anachronistic about the material here, all but one song of which is by band members. There’s a contemporary edge that comes from not only looking back, but looking around. A case in point is ‘Fallout’, its lyrics incisively commenting on the radioactive legacy of Fukushima, while fiddle and banjo weave foreboding textures you wouldn’t find in a more traditional roots outfit.
The greater part of the record, though, is infectiously upbeat, whether that’s the warm glow of the lilting instrumental title track, the clattering, no-sleep-’til-morning exuberance of ‘Road Song’, or the folky playfulness of ‘The Birds & The Bees’. And then there are those harmonies: when the three voices combine in the a cappella ‘Leaving’ it sends shivers up the spine. The Sweet Lowdown had better clear a little more space on the mantelpiece, as I sense another award or two in the offing.
AMERICANA UK “Chasing The Sun” Album Review, Feb 2015
Polished and proficient – Chasing The Sun is a classy album of bluegrass, folk and old-timey music by a classy band. The Sweet Lowdown hail out of Vancouver Island, and their music carries elements from the myriad of traditions brought to Canada by European settlers – and there’s also more than a touch of the Appalachian style that developed in the near-neighbour to the south. The album is a mix of songs and tunes written by the band members – Shanti Bremer (banjo), Miriam Sonstenes (fiddle) and Amanda Blied (guitar). All three sing, and there’s a more than pleasing blend of voices when they sing harmonies.
There are some wonderful sets of tunes on Chasing the Sun – April 29th is a rewarding claw hammer banjo tune that came out of “noodling around”. Shanti Bremer should certainly noodle more if this kind of melodic joy is the result. And, whilst I wouldn’t wish her sickness, it was a raging flu that brought her the first of an excellent set of dance tunes Hell Flu Jig / Margaret’s jig / Brokedown Breakdown. Miriam Sonstenes contributes several lively fiddle led tunes such as Bunching Up The Sheets which conjures up images of Appalachian cloggers stomping around a bare boarded room, and she also wrote the lilting title tune. This is not to neglect the songs – Amanda Blied’s Fallout addresses the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it’s an eerie and unsettling lament, plaintively sung, that also reflects on Canada’s involvement in uranium mining. You Can Find The North is an upbeat country-folk declaration of Blied’s preference for the open wilds over the somewhat muted joys of city life “We used to follow other stars / Before we so lit up the dark / Neon signs / Fast food take out lines”. It’s another song that carries that underlying plaintive edge. The pure bluegrass of Road Song gives each band member a lead vocal as they take verses in turn on a document of life on the road for a travelling band : “Play the show back on the road / Nowhere to rest, gotta keep moving on / Pour a drink and play a tune / The mornin’s coming and it’s comin’ soon”. It clicks along at as fast a pace as the tour bus cutting its way across country.
It’s this well blended mix of songs and tunes as well as musical styles that adds splendour to Chasing The Sun. It’s smooth without being overly slick; it’s sweet, without being saccharine; and it’s chock full of great playing.
MUSIC NEWS NASHVILLE “Chasing The Sun” Album Review, Feb 2015
Whether performing beautiful harmonies-anchored acoustic folk songs or virtuoso instrumental material, Canadian trio The Sweet Lowdown shines. On the group’s latest release “Chasing The Sun,” Amanda Blied (guitar, vocals), Miriam Sonstenes (fiddle, vocals) and Shanti Bremer (banjo, vocals) put their formidable powers as top-tier musicians into the service of the bluegrass-minded “River Winding Down,” blazing instrumental “April 29th,” Celtic ballad “Leaving” and other wonderful originals.
CD HOTLIST “Chasing The Sun” Album Review, Jan 2015
When you see an ensemble of fiddle, guitar, and banjo, you naturally expect to hear old-timey music. That is not what you get with The Sweet Lowdown. Instead, these three Canadiennes play mostly original music in a modern-folk-with-a-hint-of-string-band style, singing in tight and sweet harmony and only occasionally dipping into what might be regarded as straight-up old-timeyness. Banjoist Shanti Bremer alternates between clawhammer and bluegrass techniques, which broadens the trio’s stylistic range that much further — but what will really knock you out is the singing; these three women’s voices blend like honey from three different kinds of flowers. Great stuff.
FOLKWORDS (UK) “Chasing The Sun” Album Review, Jan 2015
Canadian roots trio The Sweet Lowdown deliver original acoustic roots music with an inventive approach that creates a style that’s all their own. The influence of their collective heritage is all too clear – Celtic to Scandinavian, bluegrass to classical, Appalachian to Eastern Europe – they’re all rubbing shoulders with a flash of fearless Canadian originality.
The evidence is their third album, ‘Chasing the Sun’.It could be called ‘traditional mountain music’, perhaps ‘revealing old time’, or maybe ‘21st century bluegrass’ whatever label you devise, it’s original, innovative instrumentation, with striking arrangements allied to sparklingly attractive harmonies.
There’s a subtle majesty that runs through their music that gives this album a feel that’s infinitely attractive and pleasurably addictive. Should your view of acoustic roots music imagine something staid and predictable – think again. The material on Chasing The Sun imbues it with a sense of well-being and calm, the overall texture being both smooth and tight. Despite lyrics that cover the 2013 Calgary floods ‘River Winding Down’ and the tsunami in Japan and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster ‘Fallout’, a feeling of quiet serenity persists. There’s mood-development you can reach out and touch – the lushness of ‘You Can Find The North’ and shared journeys with ‘Road Song’. Instrumentals add to the mix with ‘Chasing The Sun’, ‘April 29th’, ‘Bunching Up The Sheets’ and the expressive ‘Hell Flu Jig/ Margaret’s Jig/ Brokedown/Breakdown’.
The Sweet Lowdown are Miriam Sonstenes (fiddle) mixing a classical violin pedigree with traditional fiddle, Amanda Blied (guitar) blending Appalachian music with Balkan song, and Shanti Bremer (banjo) moulding bluegrass and old-time clawhammer.
NO DEPRESSION “Chasing The Sun” Album Review, Dec 2014
I had the pleasure of encountering The Sweet Lowdown at last summer’s Mission Folk Festival held about an hour east of Vancouver. The fiddle, guitar and banjo picking trio did nice job that glorious, sunny weekend of keeping the crowd entertained with their beautiful harmonies.
Chasing The Sun is the trio’s third album and continues in the tradition of past releases: nicely written beautifully arranged songs in a fairly classic bluegrass and folk tradition. The trio touches on current issues with songs like Fallout, a memorial of Japan’s Fukushima reactor meltdown that still sees lost items washing up on the coastline of the Victoria, BC band’s island home. River Winding Down tells the story of massive floods that devastated and virtually shut down one of Canada’s major cities for a few days last year.
Chasing The Sun is a collection of well written, modern songs sung by a trio that blends traditional styles into a refreshing sound that’s very much their own. It’s about as far from Lisa LeBlanc’s album (see above) as you can imagine but it’s perfect for a quiet night at home—or a warm weekend at a festival.
If you’ve liked the Wailin’ Jenny’s, the Be Good Tanyas or the Good Lovelies, Chasing The Sun should be on your Christmas list.
fROOTS MAGAZINE “Chasing The Sun” Album Review, Dec 2014
THE SWEET LOWDOWN
Chasing The Sun, Own label SLD2014
The fourth album in six years from the Victoria, British Columbia, trio of Amanda Blied, Shanti Bremer and Miriam Sonstenes captures a band who have spent the best part of 2014 on the move, an experience revealed in lyrics like: “What town is this? I think I know by how far we’ve come,” and “I am leaving I am leaving, don’t you cry, it won’t be long.”
Extensive touring can, of course, simply tire a band out, but The Sweet Lowdown appear to have been energised, as here they’re brimming with confident creativity. Featuring the kind of concise, dynamic arrangements that only come from prolonged experience of performing to audiences, Blied’s guitar, Bremer’s banjo and Sonstene’s fiddle interact beautifully, while guest musicians Adrian Dolan, Darren Nicholson and Sam Howard effectively contribute mandolins and bass without ever compromising the core trio sound.
There’s an unassuming strength in their writing, and it’s easy to envisage an appeal beyond the aficionado bluegrass and old-time country music audiences. Sonstenes’ title track is the kind of lyrical fiddle tune that Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas shift truckloads of Transatlantic Sessions DVDs with, while Blied’s You Can Find The North possess the kind of melodic hooks that Kacey Musgraves and her Nashville chums would gladly give their rhinestoned buckskin mini-skirts for. The celebrated vocal harmonies that set our editor all a-quiver (in his fR 376 Root Salad fea- ture) are showcased in all their unaccompanied glory on Leaving.
Arriving too late to feature in anyone’s albums of the year list, this original material with traditional musical values nonetheless provides heartwarming fare for the long winter evenings. www.thesweetlowdown.ca
FATEA MAGAZINE (UK) “Chasing The Sun” Album Review, Nov 2014
I discovered British Columbian band The Sweet Lowdown quite by chance. I was sent their second album, the lovely “May”, to review and I was immediately captivated by their sweet harmonies and marvellous musicianship.
The Sweet Lowdown comprises Amanda Blied (guitar and vocals), Shanti Bremer (banjo and vocals) and Miriam Sonstenes (fiddle and vocals). Together they are a force to be reckoned with as not only are they superb musicians and singers but they are all, individually, formidable songwriters/composers.
I was fortunate to see The Sweet Lowdown play live in April of this year and I was hugely impressed with their performance which highlighted their prodigious talents. At that show, they played several new compositions which now appear on their new album “Chasing The Sun”.
The big question for me was whether their new album would live up to its glorious predecessor, “May”. The answer is a resounding “Yes”.
As before, the playing and singing on this new album is exemplary, from the opening “River Winding Down” to the closing “The Rain” which is the only non-original on the album, having been written by Zane Parker.
This band is clearly a democracy as each member has contributed three compositions, with one co-write and the afore-mentioned cover. One of the appealing aspects of The Sweet Lowdown is that they write songs that reflect real issues, such as climate change (Shanti’s “River Winding Down”), pollution of the sea by nuclear waste (Amanda’s “Fallout”) and light pollution (“You Can Find The North” also written by Amanda).
On a more personal level is Amanda’s “Birds And The Bees” (I’ll let you guess what that is about) . One track that I particularly enjoy is Shanti’s “Road Song”. I know what you are thinking, “Not another song about life on the road by a travelling musician”. However, this one is irresistible, being a superb bluegrass breakdown featuring wonderful solos from Shanti (banjo), Miriam (fiddle) and guesting mandolinist Darren Nicholson. Great stuff.
By way of contrast is Miriam’s beautiful a cappella ballad “Leaving”, in which she laments being separated from family . This Celtic-influenced piece is a real treasure and with a little encouragement could become a folk club standard.
So far, I have only mentioned the songs. I should add that there are four excellent instrumentals on offer here as well. Miriam composed the albums title track , “Chasing The Sun”, a glorious depiction of a flight from sunset into sunrise. Also written by Miriam is “Bunching Up The Sheets”, a fiddle tour de force which, as I recall, went down a storm in concert.
Shanti’s tune is “April 29th” which features her nimble banjo picking as well as some fine fiddling by Miriam.
The band’s first co-write is “Brokedown Breakdown” by Shanti and Miriam and we are invited to guess who wrote which part.
On the CD sleeve it states “Made with love in Canada”. It is abundantly clear that a great deal of love went into the making of this wonderful album. Do yourself a favour and give it a listen.
fROOTS MAGAZINE Live Review by Ian Anderson, Oct 2014
The Canadian old-time/ bluegrass trio recently hit the UK for the first time. Ian Anderson was very impressed.
Those who follow my ramblings on Facebook may remember a typically OTT rave posting from back in April. “Wonderful gig tonight by The Sweet Lowdown,” I gibbered. “Harmonies to die for, fabulous playing, great original material. I even found myself complimenting Shanti the banjo player using words like ‘sweet’, ‘light and shade’, ‘poise’, ‘elegance’ and ‘tasteful’ that are never usually applied to that instrument. Well, it was that or propose marriage!” Yes, it was another of those moments referred to in my July editorial when, at that moment in time, the band I’m absorbed in are the best live band in the world right this minute.
The trio – the aforementioned Shanti Bremer on banjo, Amanda Blied on guitar and Miriam Sonstenes on fiddle – were on a busy UK debut tour – eighteen gigs in seventeen days – and remarkably upbeat considering what the climate (torrential rain) and landscape (several large tyre-bursting rocks) had thrown at their progress that weekend. But they’d made it to their second gig of the day in a tiny, obscure Bristol pub, and nothing was going to stop them having, apparently, the time of their lives.
To recap from my review last year of their third album May, there’s something about Canadian women singing together. As I mentioned then, from the McGarrigles to the Be Good Tanyas to the Abramson Singers, even if heavily influenced by the music of the Goliath to the south, there’s a unique quality that I’ve never been able to precisely define. And there are even artists from other parts of the world beginning to ape it (Australia’s Mae Trio for example). It’s not just accent, it might be harmonies… but it’s a very special thing.
Though in truth The Sweet Lowdown are only one-third Canadian born. Shanti’s (whisper) from the USA, though Olympia, WA, is as close to Canada as you can get without tripping over a moose, and Miriam immigrated from Germany at the age of nine. Formed and based in Canada’s far south west – so far that they’re out in the sea – Victoria, BC, on Vancouver Island – they’ve already been a nominee for vocal group of the year in the 2013 Canadian Folk Music Awards. They’re also hot shots on those instruments and both May and its self-titled predecessor are packed full of quality original songs, sung with killer harmonies. So far, so perfect.
Having a quick pre-gig chat while stuffing our faces with frankly awful pub pizza, I ascertained that Shanti began in a bluegrass outfit, though SLD was her first serious band (she wasn’t planning on being a pro musician, having got a degree in psychology).
Miriam played classical violin from the ages of ten to 22, did a classical music degree and never expected to be a fiddle player (though she had a secret dream of being one). But she started going to Irish sessions, met Shanti and Amanda – already performing as a duo – in Victoria through the old-time and bluegrass community, and subsequently learned everything by ear, the proper way.
Amanda came to music later in life, only starting to play guitar when she was 23. She got into old-time and bluegrass fairly quickly, via swing – Django Reinhardt & Stephane Grapelli – but then injured her arm and couldn’t play for two years so ended up learning how to sing, joining an a capella Balkan women’s choir which she actually sang with for seven years.
On the album credits, they seem to write individually. “We tend to write our own material and then bring it to the band for arrangements,” says Amanda. “A big part of our process is working on each other’s material, working it up together.”
I wondered if they’re a natural harmony machine. “I think we do hear it naturally now,” thinks Shanti. “The traditional three-part old-time and bluegrass harmonies that make up the music that we listen to. So some songs come fairly easily. But on the next record there will be harmonies that break some of the rules.”
How much are they influenced by older recordings and how much by people playing now? Shanti again: “It’s really a mixture. We’ve studied our instruments through older players back to the very beginning of recorded music really, but we have so many friends who are musicians too so we’re listening to contemporary music all the time. And of course at festivals and conferences we’re meeting so many people who are doing this right now.”
“We’re not anachronistic in our approach at all,” says Amanda. “We love those old recordings and artists but we’re right here in the present, living where we live. We’re who we are. We definitely have a West Coast Canadian spin on it. Of course as far as we’re concerned we don’t have an accent, everybody else does!”
Does the French element in Canadian music have any subtle influence? “They’ve definitely done something different with the old tunes, and of course it’s heavily influenced by Irish music,” reckons Miriam. “As a fiddle player in Canada you can’t ignore the incredible tradition of Québécois fiddling – it’s so rich and and the groove is so awesome.”
Their new record, still untitled at press time, is due out in the late autumn. And they’d very much like to come back here for more touring. Not a problem, I’d say, considering how deservedly well they were received this year. Festivals 2015?
R2 MAGAZINE Interview (UK) by Jeremy Searle, July 2014
There’s an awful lot of outfits out there playing some combination of old-time, bluegrass and folk music, and it’s hard to stand out from the crowd. Good, indeed often great, playing is taken for granted, as are sweet harmonies, excellent original songs and interesting interpretations of traditional ones. Whatever the X factor is that makes for a standout though, and there are probably as many opinions on its nature as there are music fans, Canada’s The Sweet Lowdown undoubtedly have it in spades.
Formed seven years ago as a duo with Amanda Blied (vocals, guitar) and Shanti Bremer (banjo, vocals) they added fiddler and singer Miriam Sonstenes three years later. “We just got tired of playing fiddle tunes without a fiddler,” laughs Shanti, and Amanda adds that they’ve now been a trio longer than they were a duo.
They all met on the thriving local music scene in Victoria, British Columbia though their backgrounds are very different. Blied cites an unnamed Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley album as the pivotal moment – “I just fell in love with it” – while Bremer comes from bluegrass. By contrast Sonstenes was classically trained but a wrist injury prevented her from playing. She drifted into an Irish session and found that fiddling didn’t aggravate the injury, unlike classical playing, and that was that.
And the name? “Sometimes we’re sweet, sometimes we’re lowdown,” they chorus in unison, and it’s true. The trio call their music “acoustic roots” which is broad enough to both avoid pigeonholing and give them free rein to experiment a bit without risking cries of “Judas!” They’ve just recorded their third album, to be released in the autumn, which is all originals for the first time and not just “more of the same”.
Amanda offers that it’s “…another step, a further departure. I think it’s still really grounded but we get out there a little bit more on it, a bit outside our comfort zone and the norm.” Shanti adds, “When we travel we have a great opportunity to hear so much music especially at festivals. There are these influences that are all around us and we lap it up!”
They really enjoy the recording process, unlike many performers who have a distinct preference for live shows over studio work. Amanda says: “It’s incredible, to explore music and hear yourself in a totally different way. I feel like I always learn so much and our producer Adrian Dolan (known for his work with The Bills) is incredible, a real mentor to us.” Miriam continues, “It’s such a wonderful opportunity to put yourself under the microscope; it’s one of my favourite things. Terrifying but so rewarding!”
As well as recording and the usual hectic gigging schedule, all three teach. Miriam speaks for them all when she says, “It’s always been a big part of my life and always will be. It’s really important to me.” Splitting their American tours into roughly two-week chunks helps fit everything together, though their inevitably extended visit to the UK has them enthusing about everything from pasties to pubs.
But back to the X factor. Maybe it’s the willingness to examine and challenge their music in the studio? Maybe it’s the relentless gigging (they once played seven sets in one day, and proudly pronounce they that didn’t repeat any songs or tunes)? Maybe it’s the way their playing and singing fit together so well? Maybe it’s something else? Whatever it is, their music is a joy to the ears and their return to the UK in 2015 can’t come soon enough.
FATEA MAGAZINE (UK) Live Review by Peter Cowley, April 2014
The Sweet Lowdown
Venue: The Caledonia
Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of reviewing “May”, the second album by Canadian bluegrass/old-time trio The Sweet Lowdown, who hail from Victoria, British Columbia. I was hugely impressed by “May”, so when I saw that The Sweet Lowdown were scheduled to play in Liverpool, at The Caledonia, I resolved to go see them play live at this friendly pub close to the Philharmonic Hall. I am certainly glad that I did go because this was an evening of magical music by this highly talented trio of Amanda Blied [guitar, vocals], Shanti Bremer [banjo, vocals] and Miriam Sonstenes [fiddle, guitar].
Individually, this trio are highly accomplished players and singers but when they sing and play together they create something really special. Collectively, they make some of the sweetest bluegrass and old-time music this side [and the other side] of The Great Divide.
Right from the start, TSL hit the ground running with a frenetic old-time hoedown “Chicken Under The Washtub”, with Miriam setting a sprightly pace on fiddle, which had the audience in the band’s pocket from the get-go. They followed this with the traditional “Sweet Heaven When I Die”, which demonstrated their sublime harmonies.
Whether playing traditional songs/standards or their own material, TSL manage to take the listener to bluegrass heaven.
In the former category we were treated to great versions of “Down The Road”, “Red Rocking Chair”, a stunning “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Shenandoah Breakdown” but sometimes it is difficult to tell where the traditional material ends and where their own compositions start. A prime example of this is Miriam’s “Don’t Walk Away”.
TSL are gifted songwriters, with all three members able to deliver lyrics of substance and depth. Take for example, Amanda’s compositions “The Circle Song”, “Red Shift Blues” and, best of all, her beautifully sad waltz “The Heart Is A Hollow Thing”, all of which the band performed tonight. Amanda’s favourite artists are Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley and tonight she lead the band in a storming rendition of Doc’s version of the traditional “Reuben’s Train”.
Shanti is a superb banjo player who, unusually, plays both bluegrass and old-time styles. Her instrumental “May” showcases her compositional skills as well as her excellent playing on what is a lovely tune, which starts off quietly and which builds up to an almost rock and roll ending. Equally inventive is Shanti’s “Lucknow” which was written after a trip to India for a friend’s wedding. This piece blends bluegrass and Indian music to create a whole new type of music-let’s call it Country and Eastern. This exciting piece went down extremely well with the audience. Shanti is no mean songsmith as her delightfully delirious “Please Take Me Home” amply demonstrated.
Miriam took up bluegrass fiddle after learning classical violin and has an impeccable technique. Her superb composition “Big Wave” was written about a terrifying ferry crossing to Vancouver Island and this pulsating tune perfectly captured the tumultuous nature of this experience, much to the delight of the listeners in the room. Miriam tuned her fiddle to Appalachian Mountain tuning for her new composition “Bunching Up The Sheets”, which, like her “Don’t Walk Away”, sounded amazingly authentic.
Fittingly, The Sweet Lowdown ended a marvellous evening with a beautifully evocative a cappella number, Amanda’s lovely “Lights Across The Water”, which was simply stunning.
The Sweet Lowdown really are something special. Hopefully, they will be back on these shores again soon. I certainly hope so, because it’s a very long way to go to Vancouver Island to see them!
FlyinShoes (UK) “May” Album Review, January 2014
THE SWEET LOWDOWN – MAY
This lot might be about the best named band I’ve ever come across: traditional acoustic music on guitar, fiddle and banjo is wedded to beautiful harmonies that gives us an album with sweetness and depth by the bucketload – sweet and lowdown indeed. Based in Victoria on the Pacific side of Canada, these three women are steeped in the folk tradition so thoroughly that it’s a slight surprise to find that only two out of the dozen tracks here (Reuben’s Train and Sail Away Ladies) are not originals.
Of the ten original tracks, six are songs and four are instrumentals – proper folk musicians, see – and the overall balance of material is richly rewarding as the mood and the pace shift gently from one track to another. The songs represent a random selection of subject matter: a few personal, reflective ones but also a slightly political one about the growing problem of water rights and one that finds a broad metaphor for life in a joyous night-time toboggan ride. For me, though, it’s the instrumentals that see these girls really shine; they can play with verve but it’s the interplay between them that’s a joy to hear. Quite often it seems to be Miriam Sonstenes’ fiddle that takes the driving lead but it’s always clear that this is a band that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Shanti Bremer’s banjo playing is distinctly mountain style while Amanda Blied’s guitar and majority share in lead vocal performance holds the centre nicely. Sam Howard guests on bass – and makes a major contribution to the enjoyably driving pace of Reuben’s Train – whilst producer Adrian Dolan contributes a couple of guest spots on mandola and viola.
The really nice thing about The Sweet Lowdown is that their years of playing together have resulted in them conjuring something distinctive, epitomised when Amanda is singing and Shanti’s banjo is balanced against Miriam’s fiddle: they play as separate voices, in tension with each other I think, but it’s a compelling musical conversation we’re listening in on. Hugely enjoyable, anyway, and heading to the UK in April for a few weeks – worth cheering on, I reckon.
BLUEGRASS UNLIMITED MAGAZINE “May” Album Review, June 2013
The Sweet Lowdown is comprised of three very talented women who reside on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Featuring fiddle, banjo, guitar, and three lovely singing voices with a seamless harmony, they easily inhabit a shifting musical landscape where bluegrass, old-time, folk, and Celtic music all feel like equal partners.
Sometimes with new regional bands, there’s a tendency to be stronger on either the vocal or instrumental side of things. But this group has an impressively balanced and mature skill set in both areas. Their three voices have an easy, relaxed blend, almost like sisters, with an overall sense of…well…sweetness. But when they dig into an instrumental, they can ramp up the energy level a notch or three. Most impressive is fiddler Miriam Sonstenes’ “Big Wave,” which passes the ultimate test by making this reviewer want to leave his computer behind, pick up an instrument, and learn the piece himself. Banjoist Shanti Bremer matches the fiddle skillfully, with their notes intertwining on the Celtic/Americana medley “Insa And Liam’s Jig”/“Stones In My Pocket.”
Most of the album’s dozen tracks are original songs and tunes, which is the brave and advisable path for a new band to take. The only potential pitfall is that when the originals don’t quite stand out as much as the covers of “Sail Away Ladies” and “Reuben’s Train,” then the band’s compositions run the risk of being little more than frameworks on which to display their vocal and instrumental prowess. Probably the best of the bunch are a pair of songs by guitarist Amanda Blied that bookend the CD, “The Heart Is A Hollow Thing” and “What Goes Up.”
For all that, May is still a significantly polished representation of a group, given that it’s only their second full-length recording. When a group is sounding this good this soon, it won’t take much to lift them to a higher level of prominence in the acoustic music scene. HK
fROOTS MAGAZINE “May” Album Review, Spring 2013
What is it about Canada and female harmonies? From The McGarrigles through the Be Good Tanyas to the Abramson Singers and beyond, there’s something very special going on which is obviously related to, but subtly different from, what’s been produced below their southern border.
The Sweet Lowdown – there’s no way of saying this without offending the person who rather nastily attacked a fellow fRoots reviewer as sexist recently for daring to mention that another quartet were all-female – are a trio of women from Victoria BC. Well, I’ll take my punishment, because it’s the blend of female voices which gives them their distinctive sound. Amanda Blied’s guitar, Shanti Bremer’s banjo and Miriam Sonstenes’ fiddle combine in a really good string band mix that can give the likes of that old warhorse Reuben’s Train a good motoring. Their songwriting’s a neat mixture of traditional, old-time and folk revival influences too. But it’s those voices which really hook you in and this, their second album, is a bit of a gem because of it.
I’d really better not mention that Amanda Blied – writer and lead singer on earworm tracks like The Heart Is A Hollow Thing and Hushabye – apparently used to sing in an Eastern European-styled a cappella ensemble called the Balkan Babes, had I?
RHYTHMS MUSIC MAGAZINE (Australia) “May”Album Review, February 2013
Canadian trio The Sweet Lowdown continue to indulge their love of old-time string music on this, their second album since forming in 2008. Vintage purists in sound, the three girls blend acoustic guitars, banjo, violin and vocal harmonies exploring the crossover between Celtic and early American folk and bluegrass.
In that pursuit, they do include traditional material in their sets and this album features two such compositions, ‘Reuben’s Train’ and ‘Sail Way Ladies’. The remaining songs credits are shared between the three band members, Shanti Bremer, Amanda Blied, and Miriam Sonstenes.
Sometimes those compositions revel in traditional forms, especially in instrumental form, like the jig ‘Insa and Liam’s Jig/Stones In My Pocket’. When the trio fire up their three-part harmonies, there’s a slightly more contemporary tone in the vocal swing and structure.
I’m not sure if this trio has made it to Australia yet, but it’s easy to foresee them becoming beloved regulars at festivals like Port Fairy, Brunswick Music Festival and Blue Mountains Folk Festival.
MAVERICK MAGAZINE (UK) “May” Album Review, January 2013
This album is a must have for any lover of old-time country with a fresh modern-day approach.
This is genuine old-time, traditional country music performed by three young ladies from Victoria, British Columbia. Shanti Bremer (banjo), Miriam Sonstenes (fiddle) and Amanda Blied (guitar) write their own songs and sing and play them with verve and drive mixing in sweet harmonies as they evoke a musical past, yet make it all sound just perfect for the 21st century. The first thing that comes to mind when you start spinning this album is sitting on a porch swing in the hearland of America (or in this case, Canada!). Though the musical arrangements are steeped in the past, they don’t sound overtly too rustic, so that the gentle The Heart Is A Hollow Thing is lyrically very much of today. Showcasing their musical skills, the upbeat and wild flowing Big Wave, the folksy Insa And Liam’s Jig/Stones In My Pocket and the slightly surreal Lucknow are instrumentals featuring some excellent guitar, banjo and fiddle playing that flows with a nice polished technique.
In Hushaby they sing with beautiful harmony over quickly paces, yet calm, acoustic guitar playing and softly-stroked fiddle. Ending up the album with What Goes Up once again has those rootsy and melodic lyrics that charms you with a soulful lead voice, exquisite harmonies and acoustic guitar, banjo and fiddle inter-playing perfectly.
PENGUIN EGGS MAGAZINE “May” Album Review, January 2013
THE SWEET LOWDOWN – MAY
“After five years, the three young women from Victoria who make up the Sweet Lowdown just keep getting better. In fact, good enough to create a gem in their sophomore disc. Their melange of folk, old-time and bluegrass music is so easy to listen to. Soaring harmonies, a good mixture of self-written songs and instrumentals, as well as a couple of traditional tunes all make for a mighty fine package…”
THE COASTAL SPECTATOR (BC) “May” Album Review, November 2012
If you’re a Sweet Lowdown fan, you probably fell in love with them for their rich bluegrass harmonies, formidable musicianship, and old-time folk sound. You’ll be thrilled with their third album (with 12 tracks), May.
As always, Sweet Lowdown delivers banjo and fiddle solos that impress the most experienced musicians, and for the rest of us, make us nod dumbly, follow with, “Wow. She’s good.” And just so you don’t forget that, May includes four instrumental tracks incorporating elements of bluegrass, celtic folk and even Indian-style melodies and arrangements as in “Lucknow,” a song inspired by an Indian city which banjo player Shanti Bremer visited. I’m not usually big on instrumental numbers, but I was sucked into this one instantly, with the fiddle mimicking a harmonium’s drone and the crazy Indian gypsy melodies in the banjo.
But May delivers an overall sound that I feel is signature Sweet Lowdown. With simple song forms, unadorned vocals, and three-part harmonies, May offers a kind of folk lullaby. The opening track, “The Heart Is A Hollow Thing,” evokes this lullaby quality not only musically, but lyrically, with lines like, “sticks and stones, Oh, hollow bones, bird take wing, fly high and sing.” This song is written by primary vocalist Amanda Blied (formerly of Balkan Babes), and her love of lullaby is evident in her other compositions, too, like “Hushabye,” which she calls “a lullaby for hard times,” and “What Goes Up,” a song about tobogganing on the winter solstice: “So just like Jack and Jill, we’ll go back up the hill. Just to ride right back down again like friends.” I loved this one for the Sarah Harmer-like melodies. You know the kind–the ones that feel like they’re coming to an end, but there’s still those last two words that carry the line downward in that suprising way.
I was also happy to hear Blied rip it up a little, vocally, in the cover of “Reuben’s Train.” Why “Reuben’s Train” in this album of water imagery, snow and flowers? Because every Canadian folk album must have a train song, of course!
But Blied isn’t the only songwriter with surprises. Banjo player Shanti Bremer showcases her talents in that exciting instrumental, “Lucknow,” and title track, “May.” And Bremer is a singer, too, with two of these songs on the album, “Please Take Me Home,” and “Drink It Down.” Bremer’s voice almost sounds timid on their previous album, but here she sings with steady confidence, while maintaining that angelic quality. Bremer pulls the album into the political with “Drink It Down,” a song about water rights and the impending shortage, and how she considers this in the context of the water-rich Pacific Northwest.
My favourite song on this album, though, is “Let It Go,” by fiddle player Miriam Sonstenes. It is the only song she sings, and I’m not sure why. Sonstenes voice has a clear, straight-forward quality that gives it a youthful naivety which I really loved. “Let It Go” is a song about visiting “old haunts with a dear old friend,” as Sonstenes writes in the insert. Having just recently visited my hometown for an old friend’s memorial service, I found myself connecting deeply with this piece. Sonstenes evokes a connection with place simply and poignantly with lines like “for every grain of sand there’s a tear that I have cried.” But my music-self loved the chorus best. With phrases of three measures, this asymmetrical pattern propelled the song forward in an unhurried yet exciting way. It’s a simple thing, but has a big effect. And you can always count on Sweet Lowdown to offer those simple yet stunning little juicy bits, whether in their stellar musical leads or little unexpected melodic thoughts. http://coastalspectator.ca/?p=1156
NEXUS NEWSPAPER Review by Carol-Lynne Michaels
Local band The Sweet Lowdown feature fiddle, banjo, and guitar backed by crisp female vocals that can tear down the night like it’s Virginia, 1957.
The Lowdown ladies are experts at their instruments; they found them at a young age. They champion the DIY spirit. Show bookings, album art, sound tech, and promotions—they do it all.
Live off the Floor, their self-recorded first album, has a modest seven tracks that leave the listener wanting more. The follow-up album comes out in May. The old-time musical genre is associated with a specific era, but has yet to fade from the scene
“What keeps it alive is the harmonies,” says Lowdown’s fiddler Miriam Sonstenes. “People are drawn to the sound of pure harmonies, and that feel.”
Sonstenes says people will always relate to harmony as an uplifting symbol of what we all strive for in our lives.
“The tradition is rooted in the past, but it’s very much a living tradition, even though its roots go back very far,” adds guitarist Amanda Blied. “But people are still writing music in this genre.”
Blied, Sonstenes, and banjo player Shanti Bremer spent 10 days recording after wrapping up a national rail tour between Vancouver and Toronto. The VIA Rail On-Board Musicians program had them play their way across Canada as main entertainment in lounge and dining train cars.
Their new album is sure to kick down the door their first album got its foot into.
“We are definitely rooted in old-time music,” says Blied. “But then, we do quite a bit of bluegrass now, too—sort of hard-driving bluegrass songs, pickers, and instrumentals. And a lot of originals.”
The band will tour the Gulf Islands and Vancouver before coming home to celebrate in June for a CD release party at the Victoria Event Centre. Bluegrass and old country fans can also lap up the Lowdown weekly show at the Fernwood Inn
The music brings together an entire demographic. People pack the back room of the neighbourhood pub to carve grooves in the dance floor, toe-heel-toe, and pat bouncing knees in time with the trio.
On some nights, their shows even find kids up past their bedtimes, gleefully spinning about in pajamas. Link to article.
ROOTS MUSIC REPORT Debut CD Review by Joe Ross
From Victoria, B.C., The Sweet Lowdown is a trio that plays a blend of old-time and roots music. The three women are Amanda Blied (guitar), Shanti Bremer (banjo), and Miriam Sonstenes (fiddle).
Blied and Bremer have performed together since 2008, and Sonstenes joined up in 2010. While their old-time instrumental groove is engaging (albeit a tad restrained), it’s the trio’s breezy vocals that are the center of attention on this project. Take a listen to the trio’s a cappella “Lights Across the Water.” Their rustic purity and earthy sensuality is the heart of the current roots music revival. The Sweet Lowdown reminds me of another west coast group of accomplished women, Misty River, which unfortunately is no longer together. The Sweet Lowdown’s rendition of the traditional “Western Country” imparts powerful rhythmic intensity and cohesive vocalizing.
Each of the young women sings with their own unique flair, with Sonstenes demonstrating more bluegrass influence in her rendition of the self-penned “Don’t Walk Away” that also features guests Andrew Collins’ mandolin and Andrew Downing’s bass. Bremer vocalizes with wistful nostalgia on her own compositions, “Sing It High to Low” and “River’s Deep,” as well as the traditional “Going Up on the Mountain.” Blied’s lead vocals are prominent on her compositions that open and close the album, as well as on Chris Goole’s song, “$100,” that laments the fact that a C-note doesn’t go far and that nobody pays for music anymore. While that song conveys a lot of truth for musicians, I hope these three gals keep on trudging and don’t get the least bit discouraged. They have a great deal of potential and could go far.
With a fresh sound and originality, they’re walking a musical road with a clear vision for their songs. (Joe Ross) Link to article.
THE PROVINCE Debut CD Review, Jan 22, 2012
And sweet it is. Victoria folk trio makes its album in Parry Sound, Ont., which has a way of purifying its sound. Nothing fussy here, just some lovely vocals with harmony, banjo and acoustic guitar for a spare but sturdy backbone and emotional colur added by Miriam Sonstenes’ fiddle. The few trad songs have a slight gospel flavour but they fit well with some beguiling originals written mostly by Amanda Blied or Shanti Bremer. (B Tom Harrison) Link to article.
EARSHOT MAGAZINE Debut CD Review, Nov 22, 2011 by Marshall Hignett
The Sweet Lowdown are an acoustic roots trio from Victoria, British Columbia. The band consists of guitarist Amanda Blied, banjo player Shanti Bremer, and fiddle player Miriam Sonstenes. All three share vocal duties, with Blied taking lead on most songs.
After releasing an EP in 2008, The Sweet Lowdown is their debut full-length album. The CD is full of great three-part harmonies, finger-picked melodies, and technically advanced fiddle soloing.
Bremer takes lead on a few tracks, and has a quite interesting tone to her delivery. Her vocals are featured mainly on “Sing it High to Low”, “River’s Deep”, and a cover of the traditional folk song “Going Up On the Mountain”. The album also has a cover of bluegrass artist Chris Coole’s “$100”, and a traditional rendition of “Western Country”.
Andrew Downing is featured on bass on some tracks, including “Don’t Walk Away”–which has mandolin from Andrew Collins as well. The Sweet Lowdown also have three instrumental jams that showcase astounding exchanges of melodies between all members.
The Sweet Lowdown is an incredibly original CD that recreates an old-time feel for contemporary compositions. (Marshal Hignett) Link to article.