Bluegrass, Bollywood blues and Carnatic funk in Berkeley

Tessa Schwartz, Ida Winfree, Megan January and Daisy Kerr celebrate their debut album as North Country Blue at The Back Room on Sunday afternoon. Photo: Randy January

This wasn’t Tessa Schwartz’s first rodeo. The fiddler was already a studio veteran when she was the youngest player on the debut album of the quartet 35 Years of Trouble, so when the time came to document her latest band North Country Blue, she wasn’t fazed by the novelty of the studio.

Featuring the 14-year-olds Daisy Kerr (guitar, banjo, vocals) and Ida Winfree (mandolin, guitar, vocals), and fellow 15-year-old Megan January (bass, vocals), North Country Blue is a precociously accomplished bluegrass combo that celebrates the release of their eponymous debut album Sunday afternoon at The Back Room. They also perform a Pt. Richmond house concert at Casa Verde on March 1, and March 23 at Modesto’s Barkin’ Dog Grill.

“Daisy and I have both recorded projects before, and Megan and Ida hadn’t,” says Schwartz, a freshman at Berkeley High. “Were at that point where we wanted to have that experience together, almost a memento of what we’d done together.”

While the band’s mature musicianship is impressive what’s most striking is their excellent taste. Produced by Berkeley mandolin player, singer, and composer Sharon Gilchrist, the album features several engaging original songs by Kerr and Winfree and a lovely instrumental by Schwartz, “Maera’s Waltz.” But the young women really let loose on classic songs by Ralph Stanley (“Riding That Midnight Train”) and Hazel Dickens (“You’ll Get No More of Me”), and contemporary pieces by Anaïs Mitchell (“Any Way the Wind Blows”) and Gillian Welch (“Hard Times”). The repertoire reflects a typical North Country Blue performance, though they added several pieces to the set list in anticipation of the recording.


“When we started choosing songs we went with tunes we play the most, the ones we knew best and would be the most fun,” Schwartz says. “We all have different influences and tastes that bluegrass overlaps. I’m a big Anaïs Mitchell fan, so I suggested we learn that one. Megan loves Gillian Welch. We all have our heroes and want to play their songs.”

Schwartz first started performing in the Oak Grove Family Bluegrass Band with her brothers Max and Nate (on bass/banjo and mandolin, respectively), their father Bob Schwartz on rhythm guitar and vocals, and mom Gail Miles on bass. While her brothers are working musicians, Tessa doesn’t see herself pursuing music as a profession. “Both of my brothers have gone down that path,” she says. “I enjoy it and want to do it my whole life, but I don’t think that’ll be my career path.”

Flourishing on Berkeley’s vibrant bluegrass scene, she’s used to being the youngest person at a session. But now that she’s leading a weekly bluegrass group at King Middle School, Schwartz is working to make sure there are players coming up behind her. “There’s definitely a great bluegrass community here,” she says. “Though I haven’t found other bluegrass players at Berkeley High yet. There’s not much of a youth scene, though there are a lot of kids studying at Manning Music. It’s definitely growing.”

Bollywood Blues at Ashkenaz

Blues fans can be resistant to change, policing the boundaries of the tradition to ward off pretenders and posers. But San Jose vocalist and harmonica ace Aki Kumar has found a warm welcome with his singular cultural mash up blending the blues he came to love after moving to the South Bay with the Bollywood themes that filled his home growing up in Mumbai. The result is Aki Goes to Bollywood, a deliriously inspired act that marries propulsive blues and R&B grooves to soaring melodies from some of Indian cinema’s best loved scenes.

“All the songs I cover are songs I grew up with, part of my musical upbringing,” says Kumar, who performs Friday at Ashkenaz. “And while it might seem like these are totally different styles, there are a lot of parallels. There’s one Hindi song I do, ‘Sajan Re Jhoot Mat Bolo,’ about how we’re all going back to mother earth. What could be more blues than that? I had to include it, but it had to have a very big blues signature, so I set it to this Bo Diddley groove. The whole concept is progressing more and more, representing what’s in my head.”

Kumar introduced the project on 2016’s Aki Goes to Bollywood, one of the first albums released by Little Village Foundation. Last year he released his second album for the label, Hindi Man Blues, and he’s been delighted with the response from audiences.

“I’m a guy from India who really loves the blues,” Kumar says. “I listen to the music all the time, and love learning new songs. But at the end of the day I’m not from Mississippi Delta. My formative experiences are from India, and I’m never going to be African-American. Sometimes we put this shell around ourselves trying to force feed the tradition. There needs to be an acknowledgement that while we love blues, we need to infuse our own identity into our music.”


Carnatic Soul with the Alaya Project

San Francisco drummer/percussionist Rohan Krishnamurthy is exploring a different kind of cultural synthesis in the Alaya Project, performs at the California Jazz Conservatory’s Rendon Hall on Wednesday, presented by Jazz In the Neighborhood. A disciple of Chennai maestro Guruvayur Dorai, the foremost master of the South Indian double-headed mridangam drum, Krishnamurthy has also studied drumming with jazz expert Alan Hall at the CJC. He draws on both improvisational traditions in the Alaya Project, which combines classical Carnatic ragas and contemporary jazz and funk. With saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan, a leading Bay Area force in South Indian jazz, and keyboardist Colin Hogan, the trio is forging a beautiful new sound.