Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band - Legacy
PETER ROWAN BLUEGRASS BAND
Compass Record Group 7 4543 2
You can’t really say Legacy is Peter Rowan’s homecoming to traditional bluegrass since he never really completely left tradition behind. Diverted from it, yes—even for long spells. But, the ancient tones were always beneath the surface. It’s better to say this recording contains a body of work that is more thoroughly grounded in the tradition than anything he’s done in a long time, and it’s arguably among the finest bluegrass recordings made in a decade…perhaps in the last 25 years…maybe longer. It is that good.
A few particulars: thirteen tracks; ten of them Rowan originals; one traditional tune; one Stanley tune; and one Jody Stecher original instrumental. In addition to Stecher on mandolin and vocals, Keith Little is on banjo and vocals, and Paul Knight plays bass—a group of guys who truly understand the form and subtleties of the traditional style.
What should strike the listener right away is the songwriting. “Jailer, Jailer” is a blues-based, Monroe/Dylan hybrid that uses jail as a metaphor for traps we get ourselves in. Interestingly, it ends with Rowan pleading not to be set free. “Father, Mother” is a beautiful, slow lament on death and comes cloaked in a Jimmie Rodgers-like sentimentalism. It’s a song that could easily veer into the maudlin or corny, but Rowan is too fine a writer for that, and the performance is so pure it never becomes anything less than believable. The same could be said for “Turn The Other Cheek” and its admonition to treat our fellow man well, and for “God’s Own Child,” with its intense personal expression of faith, its call and response vocals, and the contributions of guest vocalists Del McCoury and Ricky Skaggs. All four could stand with the classics of traditional bluegrass.
Other fine songs include the mountain blues public domain tune, “Catfish,” sung to perfection by Stecher, the Stanley gospel tune, “Let Me Walk By Your Side,” with Keith Little handling the lead, and the old-time Rowan original, “The Raven.” In the latter, Rowan writes in a bit of Poe and even references his own “Midnight Moonlight.”
One final note. Not all the tunes here work solely within traditional bounds. “So Good,” “The Night Prayer,” and “Don’t Ask Me Why,” fine songs all, are more in keeping with the pop-influenced style of the ’70s. And, he can’t resist ending on what sounds like a traditional mountain song, “Across The Rolling Hills,” only the hills are the Himalayas and the ride out is a Buddhist mantra. In a sense, part of the legacy he is reflecting is his own. (Compass Records Group, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.) BW
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
FRANK SOLIVAN & DIRTY KITCHEN
Fiddlemon Music 13003
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen have certainly ranked among the “buzz” bluegrass bands of 2010. Fittingly, their eponymous CD presents a razor sharp, confident quartet influenced by a broad range of the last four decades of bluegrass music development.
Veteran Mike Munford’s crackling banjo draws the listener in from the kickoff of the driving lead track, “Driftin’ Apart,” one of six songs that Solivan wrote or co-wrote. Mike’s banjo work quickly meets its counterpoint in some killer resonator guitar playing by Blue Highway’s Rob Ickes, one of four special guests. “Driftin’ Apart” defines one of the band’s primary approaches: the fast modern bluegrass song. This approach repeats on several of the recording’s top tracks including Ginger Boatwright’s “Runaway Ramp,” Munford’s instrumental “Line Drive,” and another of Frank’s songs, “Tarred And Feathered,” with John Cowan on tenor.
Mandolinist and lead singer Solivan began winning fiddle contests and playing with Doug Dillard and Ginger while also playing first chair violin with the University of Alaska Symphony. The U.S. Navy Band Country Current brought him east and allowed him to become well-enough known to now front his own unit. The band also includes Stephan Custodi on standup bass and guitarist Lincoln Meyers. Solivan’s songwriting often proves standout. He writes songs that clearly are bluegrass, yet deal with contemporary themes.
The second cut on the album, John Stewart’s “July You’re A Woman,” jumps back in time to the hippiegrass of forty years ago, while Solivan’s “Together We’ll Fly” reminds me of some of the best West Coast bluegrass of the ’80s and ’90s. Another fine song from Frank, “Left Out In The Cold,” is a ripped-from-the-headlines ballad of the kind Blue Highway does so well. “Paul & Silas” from the Stanleys concludes the album with a rich a capella quartet.
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen announce their arrival with authority. Their debut delivers lots of strong original material and outstanding variety without every falling into musical dilettantism. (Fiddlemon Music, 6625 Cornell Dr., Alexandria, VA 22307, www.dirtykitchenband.com.) AM
Keller & The Keels - Thief
KELLER & THE KEELS
Sci Fidelity Records SCIFI 1139
When I first received Thief, the second set of cover songs recorded by Keller Williams and Larry and Jenny Keel, I fully expected my review to end up in the “On The Edge” section of this magazine. Williams’ music floats on the quirky yet inventive side of the jam band scene, and The Keels have always had an open mind about their Virginia ’grass. This trio’s first album together was called Grass and it was good, but uneven. Thief, on the other hand, flows wonderfully throughout with great arrangements and expanded musicality.
The unusual cover-song choices here will seem odd at first glance. But, the positive approach and upbeat grooves makes this CD fit in the “regular” review category just fine. Williams handles most of the lead vocals, while all three keep their acoustic instruments humming throughout. Larry Keel’s leads are excellent, especially in the case of rollicking and infectious versions of Patterson Hood’s “Uncle Disney” and Ryan Adams’ “Cold Roses.” Both Keels sing harmony and Jenny’s bass playing is as solid as ever. Other covers include “Switch And The Spur” by The Raconteurs, “Get It While You Can” by Danny Barnes, Cracker’s “Teen Angst,” “Bath Of Fire” by Presidents Of The United States Of America, the Grateful Dead’s “Mountains Of The Moon,” and Yonder Mountain String Band’s “Wind’s On Fire.” Even when the trio takes on the Amy Winehouse song “Rehab,” it isn’t done in a gimmicky way, but instead rocks right along.
Larry shares the lead vocals with Keller on two Kris Kristofferson songs, “Don’t Cuss The Fiddle” and “The Year 2003 Minus 25,” which open and close the album. If this album was too quirky, it wouldn’t hold up to multiple listenings. This fun effort, however, will stay in the mix for a long while. (SCI Fidelity Records, 2060 Broadway St., Ste. 225, Boulder, CO 80302, www.scifidelity.com.) DH
New Outlook - Prepare To Believe
PREPARE TO BELIEVE
No Label, No Number
This is a pleasing mix of new-country songs and original material. New Outlook is anchored by the Ohio-based team of bassist Lori Lyn and banjo player Brad Lambert, both powerful vocalists. Right from the opening version of the country hit “Somebody’s Knocking” and continuing through “Wish You Were Someone I Loved” and “Love’s Not Everything,” New Outlook knocks on the door of an enjoyable CD.
Especially impressive is how Lyn and Lambert have melded their sidemen into a well-arranged, flowing ensemble. There’s been a lot of thought and care put into this music. Their original material especially shows such creativity, as witness the standout tracks “Bullet Through The Heart” and the bluesy “Baby, Look Out.”
This is a group that can bring out the best in other people’s material, but also create their own songs with style. This is an impressive recording from the band. They’re bound to go further in the future. (New Outlook, 102 E. Benton Apt. #1, Wapak, OH 45895, www.newoutlookbluegrass.com.) RDS
The Old Time Bluegrass Singers - Plastic Heart
THE OLD TIME BLUEGRASS SINGERS
Open Road Records OR-017
The Old Time Bluegrass Singers are bluegrass pioneer Herb Applin on mandolin, Lillian Fraker on bass, Terry McGill on banjo, Dick Bowden on guitar, and Robert Fraker on guitar. All contribute vocals. Applin was designated a pioneer by the IBMM (International Bluegrass Music Museum) for his work with the Lilly Brothers, Don Stover, and Joe Val, all strong roots of bluegrass in New England.
This band grows from those roots and moves in its own direction. One song each come from Joe Val (“Meet Me By My Old Kentucky Home”) and Don Stover (“I’ll Be Myself Again”). The remainder are from a wide range of sources ranging from The Louvins’ “From Mother’s Arms To Korea” to Ramona Jones’ “Banjo Am The Instrument For Me.” They like clever lyrics, vocal duets and trios, and good songs. The title cut was a favorite of Joe Val’s. They also like hardcore traditional bluegrass such as the Stanley Brothers’ “I’m Only Human.” There are three gospel numbers, “They Can Only Fill One Grave,” “I Know My Lord’s Gonna Lead Me Out,” and “Stone Was Rolled Away.” The one instrumental is a fine and inventive banjo rendition of “Casey Jones.” While this is not material original to this band, these are also not songs commonly heard in bluegrass, though these arrangements demonstrate that they can and should be.
I recommend this CD for excellent singing, great playing, and tight band arrangements which are faithful both to traditional bluegrass and song presentation. Take note. This is how it should be done.(Open Road Records, P.O. Box 271, Lanesboro, MA 01237, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.) SAG
The Oly Mountain Boys
THE OLY MOUNTAIN BOYS
No Label, No Number
The Oly Mountain Boys have been working the circuit around the Olympia, Wash., area since the band formed in 2008. The band consists of guitarist/vocalist Chris Rutledge, banjoist/vocalist Tye Menser, mandolinist Derek McSwain, bassist/reso-guitarist/vocalist Phil Post, and fiddler Josh Grice. This is their debut.
The accompanying press notes state that the group has a strong affinity for the Stanley and Monroe styles, but for this recording, they’re blending in folk-rock and Americana. That proves to be a good move. A lighter, folkier brand of bluegrass seems to work better for them than the hard-driving traditional sound. At least that’s the impression you get after hearing their reasonable if somewhat average versions of “Hello City Limits” or “Are You Missing Me.”
Part of the reason the folkier approach works better is that the band’s sole lead singer, Tye Menser, has a softer, lighter vocal timbre. Where “Are You Missing Me” lacks a bit of the necessary fire, a tune such as their cover of Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain” is quite good. The matching of Menser’s voice to the right material makes the song one of the album highlights.
Several other highlights are among the six originals that Menser contributed here. “Dreams Along The Way” is a medium-tempo glimpse at a life gone horribly wrong, while “Six Hours” recalls those folk ballads in which a phrase or word group, in this case “six hours,” becomes almost a mantra.
The other highlight of the recording is the mandolin work of Derek McSwain. His leads had a nice, full rhythmic feel and a good sound throughout the album, particularly on his own “Oly Mountain Waltz.” (Tye Menser, 3142 Yew Trail Dr. NW, Olympia, WA 98502, myspace.com/olymountainboys.) BW