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  • Jonathan Widran


Every colorful word of praise I expressed about Banjo Nickaru & Western Scooches’ rhythmically eclectic, dazzling and fun 2018 retro-Americana album Get Out of Fearland – including the complimentary use of the phrase “joyful schizophrenia” – applies to The Scooches’ equally delightful, rousing but often pointed and socially conscious new collection that is, by design and title, intended to Lift You Up.

Yet before we get into the rousing, rap-spiced, spot-on call to action anthem “Stop This Climate Change” (the album’s lead single, released on Earth Day 2023) and the balance of cheeky fun (“I Broke the Egg”) and pointed issue-oriented songs (the subtle but searing gun violence/human trafficking themed “Run”), it bears mentioning that the band’s change in monikers might lead to some confusion on the consumer front.

Because the ensemble’s first two albums (including the 2016 debut Very Next Thing) were released under the name Banjo Nickaru & Western Scooches (“Banjo Nickaru” being the nickname of the band’s co-leader, multi-instrumentalist Nick Russo), they appear on Spotify under both names. Led by Russo and the marvelous, vocally versatile lead singer/songwriter Betina Hershey, The Scooches is the same wild, unpredictable, rootsy and acoustic yet stylistically all over the map band we’ve known and loved for seven years. But good luck trying to find their discography in one place – at least on streaming.

One thing’s for sure, though – once you locate Lift You Up, the whimsical sensory-musical overload you experience you experience will make you glad you did. Those logistical frustrations aside, the 12-song set (concluding with two completely unique, almost surreally percussive, celebratory spins through the traditional protest song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around”) is a fascinating journey showcasing grand, singalong style songwriting and arrangements and the towering collective talents of Russo, Hershey and their grand ensemble of skilled, totally game musicians from New York, Suriname, Sapelo Island (Georgia) and the Caribbean.

The most prominent and memorable of these artists are the raspy, guttural voiced Miles Griffith (who creates a powerful complement to Hershey’s high toned, pitch perfect eloquence and emotion) and Brooklyn rapper Ra$h Ca$h, whose dynamic flow on “Stop This Climate Change” brings a contemporary urgency to the overall message that we need to wake up because we’re suffering by the day. In a track that needs to be more than an Americana/hip-hop single but sung by concerned citizens around the world, the line that resonates most is, “The kids are the future, the planet’s karma sutra/Instead of doing right you doing whatever suits ya.”

While “Stop This Climate Change” is already deservedly the biggest attention getter, its impact should not overpower the energetic blend of frolic and poignancy around it, starting with the infectious and lilting, reggae-flavored pick me up opening title track (a winsome tune about the simple joys of giving), continuing on through the feisty, down-home banjo pickin’ romp “Let’s Grow Our Roots Deep and True,” the sweet, charming bossa-flavored encourager “Open a Door” and the plucky, toe-tappin’, old timey 20’s influenced reminder that “What’s Meant to Last Will Last.”

One of the great pleasures The Scooches offer is following something heavy and heartrending with a tune that reminds us life is still worth living – and here’s how to do it. A great example of this is the one two punch of the aforementioned “Run” (a traditional acoustic country ballad about two of the most crucial social issues of our time) and the fiery, buoyant call to make a difference (“Spread Your Wings and Fly”), featuring the gorgeous vocal harmonies of Griffith and Hershey) amidst a dense and exciting forest of percussion by drummer Harvey Wihrt and percussionist Dr. David Pleasant.

Hopefully now that they’ve created their latest masterwork, The Scooches will stick to their cool, catchy new name for a long spell and find a way to help longtime and new fans avoid confusion between their past and present iterations.


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