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Get Off Your Money

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Album Review

The Stairwell Sisters walk on stage laughing, dancing, and winking at the crowd with the energy of a schoolgirls, bright-eyed and ready to take on the world. The Sisters include clogger and banjo player Evie Ladin, Martha Hawthorne on bass, Sue Sandlin on rhythm guitar, fiddler Stephanie Prausnitz, and Dobro ace Lisa Berman. Their close harmonies, usually in duets produced by various pairings of Sisters and Ladin's clog dancing, made them as one of the more unique acts on the San Francisco Bay Area traditional music scene. The Sisters actually took form in a stairwell when Sandlin and Berman met on their day job. On breaks they harmonized in the stairwell of their office building and kept the self-effacing name as a reminder not to get too serious. About three years ago well-known roots music producer Lloyd Maines (James McMurtry, Jerry Jeff Walker, Pat Green) caught the Sisters playing on the streets of Boulder, CO and asked if he could help them out in any way. They asked him to produce Get Off Your Money and he gives the band's sound a bit of polish without diminishing their down-home funkiness.

The album is evenly split between traditional tunes and originals written in the old-time style, every one of them a gem. "Hangman Tree" is sung by a condemned prisoner facing his (or her) last moments on earth. Berman's high wailing vocal and Ladin's bone-rattling banjo intensify the song's fatal aura. "Boat's Up the River" is a country blues marked by the moaning harmonies of Sandlin and Berman and Berman's stinging slide guitar. "Swing Low" is probably the root of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," a simple banjo tune highlighted by Sandlin's jaw harp and the pure mountain harmonies of Berman and Ladin. The hoedowns here are all pure joy: "Stay All Night" is accented by Ladin's clogging, the swinging fiddle of Prausnitz, and Ladin's claw hammer banjo playing, "Silly Liza Jane" and "Get Off Your Money" are taken at a breakneck tempo that lets every sister show off her instrumental chops.

The originals show the Sisters stretching the boundaries of old-time music while still staying true to the spirit of the music. "Selina/Nancy Belvins" is a medley of "Selina" a tune by Tanzanian songwriter Claudi Bieda and "Nancy Belvins," a traditional tune fiddle tune. The pulsing African rhythm and the mournful mountain tune fit together to create some old-time world music. "Cinderella" benefits from Maines' pedal steel, giving it a modern country feel. Ladin sings her sad tale of a stepdaughter in an impossible situation with aching poignancy. Hawthorne's "Who's to Blame" and Sandlin's "Shuffle and Shine" explore the tribulations of working class life, the first with a sprightly melody and playful call-and-response vocals, the latter with a more somber banjo driven melody and a lyric about folks who have to take jobs they hate to pay the rent. "Sleep When You're Dead" is a rave-up celebrating night-long parties played with fiery spunk, while "Fitch Mountain Waltz" is a lilting love song with swooning ensemble harmonies and Berman's Dobro adding to its dreamy feel. ~ j. poet, Rovi

Get Off Your Money, The Stairwell Sisters
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