Northern Lights, "an original, risk-taking bluegrass/new grass band" (BILLBOARD), starts with the sound that came first from the Kentucky hills, mixes in a
bit of western swing, blues, folk, jazz, cajun, even classical, and delivers
proof that, "the best bluegrass has to offer wasn't necessarily recorded four
decades ago" (Bluegrass Unlimited).
Since the band's formation in 1975, its reputation has grown from its native New England soil to the rest of the country and beyond. Audiences and critics agree with England's Country Music Roundup that Northern Lights is "... the most imaginative outfit in the US of A," both in the studio and in live performances.
Northern Lights' three albums on the Flying Fish label have all made the top 10 of the Bluegrass Unlimited National Bluegrass Survey. The group recently signed with Red House Records, and their first album with the Minnesota label, Living in the City, was released in July, 1996.
Take You to the Sky (1990) won a Boston Music Award in 1991, and included "Winterhawk," one of the five finalists for the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Song of the Year award. Can't Buy Your Way (1992) made it to #3 on the Survey's Top Album Chart. Wrong Highway Blues (1994) spent eight months on the chart, climbing to #9.
And when they take the stage, the combination of energy, intensity, and vocal and instrumental gymnastics is "hot enough to peel the paint off your walls."--Nashua Telegraph
The eclectic mix of styles is intentional, and probably the result of the rather circuitous musical routes that brought the band together.
Mandolinist Taylor Armerding (Ipswich, MA), raised on classical piano, clarinet and gospel vocal harmonies, fell into the Boston folk scene of the '60s but didn't even know what bluegrass was until 1972, when he visited the Oldtime Fiddlers' Convention in Union Grove, NC. It was like a religious conversion. "From the first minute I heard it, I knew this was what I wanted to play," he says. "It had speed, intensity, high harmonies and the all the improvisational possibilities of jazz. What more could you want?"
For guitarist Bill Henry (N. Stonington, CT), it was the genius of Doc Watson combined with the jazz influence of a year at Boston's Berklee College of Music that made him one of the best soloists and instrumental arrangers in bluegrass today. A Washington Post reviewer wrote of "fleet, neatly woven solos." He had to have been listening to Bill.
Master banjoman Mike Kropp (N. Kingstown, RI) has influences to spare. While working for Columbia Records in the '60s, his list of acquaintances included Doug Dillard, Clarence White, Tony Trischka, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and David Bromberg. But it was J. D. Crowe and the New South who truly inspired him to spend the next 25 years learning the fundamental skill of all true banjomen --cyberspeed picking while maintaining a catatonic facial expression.
Bassist Chris Miles (Georgetown, MA) has recorded and performed with a variety of rock, jazz, and country artists. His contemporary Christian rock band, LMX, performed with such notable acts as Grammy winner Steven Curtis Chapman and Charlie Peacock, and he is currently recording with Steve Hunt of the Allan Holdsworth Band. His musical influences are many, but his greatest love has always been the Beatles. Not content with just 4 strings, Chris also plays both 5- and 6-string electric bass and is the newest member of Northern Lights.
Fiddler Jake Armerding (Ipswich, MA) is already a veteran of the stage and studio at 19. Of course, it was hard to avoid absorbing the Northern Lights repertoire living in the same house with the mandolin player. Jake joined the group in 1992 at age 14, a year after winning the Lowell Fiddling Contest. He has won numerous awards in state school music competitions. He is currently a freshman at Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL, and joins the band as often as his academic schedule allows.
Collectively, Northern Lights has evolved from a good-time bluegrass bar band called How Banks Fail into one of the premier ensembles in the progressive end of the music today. The move to national recognition began in 1986, when the group, on the strength of a demo, got invited to the Best New Bluegrass Band Contest hosted by Kentucky Fried Chicken in Louisville, KY. They finished third, behind blossoming 15-year-old phenom Alison Krauss and Union Station.
Since then, the group has appeared at major festivals and concert venues from New England to California, and performed in various co-billings with such prominent acoustic artists as Peter Rowan, Jonathan Edwards, Vassar Clements, Dave Mallett, the Seldom Scene, the Tony Rice Unit, Tim O'Brien, the Austin Lounge Lizards, Ranch Romance.
While pushing the boundaries of a musical form, the band is committed to the same philosophy that inspired Bill Monroe to create what is now called bluegrass, in the 1930s. "Monroe was a revolutionary," says Armerding. "He took several different styles of music and fused them into one. I figure if he were a young man today, he'd probably be pushing things further than we are."
They're winning new converts at every show. "I never thought I liked bluegrass until I heard you guys," gushed one new fan after a show.