“Scenechronized” by Seldom Scene

Seldom Scene
Sugar Hill Records
4 stars (out of 5)

The seven year blues is over for Seldom Scene fans. Scenechronized is their first album since 2000’s Scene It All, and it’s good enough to justify the wait.

The same five-man lineup returns – Dudley Connell (guitar, vocals), Ben Eldridge (banjo, guitar), Lou Reid (mandolin, vocals), Ronnie Simpkins (bass, harmony vocals) and Fred Travers (Dobro, vocals) – with one welcome addition.

Ben’s son Chris Eldridge (also of the Infamous Stringdusters and Chris Thile’s How to Grow a Band) joins his father’s unpredictably impeccable banjo in the the mix, flatpicking some sharp lead breaks on “This Morning at Nine,” “Sweetest Love” and “Tomorrow is a Long Time.”

The latter track is another of Connell’s fine Bob Dylan covers, and here he also tackles Steve Earle’s “Hometown Blues,” Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” Carter Stanley’s “Sweetest Love” and a couple of new tunes with his mighty, energetic lead vocals.

With backing vocals from Connell and Reid, Travers takes John Duffey-like leads on “Heart and Soul” and “Don’t Bother With White Satin,” each following in the Scene’s long tradition of bringing elegant three-part harmonies to material more often performed by a lone singer-songwriter.

It would have been nice to hear a couple more tracks with Reid singing lead, but the two on which he does – “This Morning at Nine” and Donna Hughes’ “Sad Old Train” – are enough to prove his soaring tenor is among the best there is whatever the role it plays.

All 13 tracks fit nicely into the band’s already vast repertoire, especially John Fogerty’s “A Hundred and Ten in the Shade, ” which crams everything great about this edition of the Scene into four minutes: Connell’s enthusiasm, a swampy arrangement that shows off everyone’s dynamic range and a vocal chorus that’s both finely nuanced and nearly overpowering.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Weapons of Grass Destruction” by Hayseed Dixie

Hayseed Dixie
Weapons of Grass Destruction
Cooking Vinyl Records
3 stars (out of 5)

Hayseed Dixie is made up of four strange and possibly brilliant men: Barley Scotch (guitar/vocals/fiddle), Reverend Don Wayne Reno (banjo), Deacon Dale Reno (mandolin) and Jake Bakeshake Byers (bass). Hayseed Dixie is awful, but in a wonderful way.

With the cunning use of what can only be called a rockgrass sensibility, Hayseed Dixie makes a living covering songs from such artists as the Sex Pistols, Scissor Sisters, Cliff Richard, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and their original inspiration, AC/DC.

They’re all great instrumentalists playing to the tune of a different radio frequency…or brain wave. Reverend Don Wayne Reno’s banjo sings through the band’s excellent arrangement of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” If only Barley would try and imitate the tone of the original rather than going for his Valley boy vocal technique. “Paint it Black” is an excellent arrangement of the Rolling Stones original. “The Rider Song” is sure to give any musician a laugh, especially if you’ve ever been on tour.

At the end of this record I came to the conclusion that the members of Hayseed Dixie are trailblazers of bluegrass music.  They challenge bluegrass authority, playing into the harsh face of traditionalism while using their banjos to smack the face of social propriety.  Hayseed Dixie, I may not quite be willing pay $15 for your CD, but I would definitely pay $10 to see you at the Station Inn!

by Erin Faith

“Endless Highway: The Music of The Band” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Endless Highway: The Music of The Band
429 Records
2.5 stars (out of 5)

Covering The Band presents a different sort of challenge than covering another great band or artist, simply because Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson amounted to much more together than they ever could apart.

Which is saying something, because each of them is, or was, a distinctive genius on at least one instrument and three of them were (Danko and Manuel), or are (Helm), truly great singers.

Their eccentric arrangements, uncanny harmonies and ragged vocal interplay will simply never be approximated, even using their own compositions as a guide.

To even come close on a tribute album, you’d have to have plenty of artists as singularly brilliant. Some who appeared on The Last Waltz and had other important connections to The Band are still around: Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and, heck, even Neil Diamond and Joni Mitchell.

Other nice choices that, alas, aren’t here: Bruce Springsteen, Lyle Lovett, Ray LaMontagne, Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson, and I could go on.

And what about a bluegrass or blues band, or a gospel quartet, who could retrofit a Band song to one of the styles that influenced them?

While I keep wishing along those lines, here’s a track-by-track of the disc we have:

“This Wheel’s on Fire” by Guster

Plunking banjo and tinkling piano and a weak-sounding organ (or synth, or whatever) ornament a straightforward, slightly more laid-back take than the original. Decent lead vocal, harmonies a little better, and a weird spoken outro.

“King Harvest” by Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers

Hornsby is one of the few musicians around today who I think could have really meshed with The Band. He’s a virtuoso, does everything on the piano (including bluegrass, which I thought was impossible) and is weirdly creative. This track has a swampy groove, nice organ playing and a jazzy vocal.

“It Makes No Difference” by My Morning Jacket

The Band’s two best-known versions of this song – from Northern Lights-Southern Cross and The Last Waltz – never fail to make me want to cry. Rick Danko’s lead vocal and Robbie Robertson’s guitar solo can only be described as poignant, in the truest, non-cliched sense of the word.

It’s a pleasant surprise that MMJ manages to do it justice, with Jim James’ tender, clear vocal ringing through the glorious, crunchy reverb as recorded in Levon Helm’s Woodstock studio/barn.

“I Shall Be Released” by Jack Johnson with the Animal Liberation Orchestra

Soft, plodding, quaint and not a trace of emotion. In other words, what you’d expect from Jack Johnson.

“The Weight” – Lee Ann Womack

Womack is a decent singer, especially when given some good material like on There’s More Where That Came From (2005). But there’s not a woman alive who can make this song sound like it should. The incomparable Buddy & Julie Miller on harmony can’t save this one.

“Chest Fever” by Widespread Panic

Widespread Panic wisely refrain from trying to match the subtlety and spookiness of Garth Hudson’s trademark tune. They decided to rock it hard instead, and it works. Nice full organ intro, four loud, thick drum cracks, then the guitars grab on, followed by big horns and the momentum plows through five more minutes of what is easily the best track on this project.

“Up on Cripple Creek” by Gomez

Like Guster’s “This Wheel’s on Fire,” a plain, straightforward copy of the original, with added slide guitar and a lead singer trying very hard to be gritty and soulful.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Allman Brothers Band

Hearing this track, all you can think is how perfect the classic Allman Brothers Band lineup would have been for this song, since they, unlike four-fifths of The Band, actually were from the South and did more than any other band to make it OK to be explicitly Southern (and biracial, by the way) in the rock world.

That, and Gregg Allman’s voice, one of the few wholly Southern and at least somewhat as expressive as Levon Helm’s. But this is an iffy mix of a recent live performance, with Allman’s weak , tired vocal pushed down in the mix, making it even more of a dispiriting moment.

“Stage Fright” by Steve Reynolds

This is my first time hearing Reynolds. He sounds like a cross between Ryan Adams and Norah Jones. That is not a compliment. He brings no emotional drama to a song that is about emotional drama.

“Rag Mama Rag” by Blues Traveler

The Band’s arrangement on the original version is one of my favorites, with fiddles, piano, mandolin, tuba and who knows what else. John Popper digs into he vocal and his mean harmonica takes the fiddle line on a wild extended ride, and Ben Wilson’s piano and Tad Kinchla’s bass aren’t too shabby either.

“Whispering Pines” by Jakob Dylan and Lizz Wright

On the original, the fragile arrangement sounds about to fall apart, but it all hangs on Richard Manuel’s signature vocal performance. Jakob Dylan does fine on this one, and lite R&B singer Lizz Wright adds some nice touches toward the end, but tackling something so good really demands a performance as good, or a new, satisfying arrangement.

“Acadian Driftwood” by The Roches

Robbie Robertson’s ballad of the Acadian people, who were driven out of Canada after the French and Indian war and ended up becoming Louisiana’s Cajuns. The Roche sisters nail it, with a simple arrangement and lead vocals backed by harmonies weird and beautiful enough to be worthy of The Band.

“The Unfaithful Servant” by Roseanne Cash

Her singing has always left me flat. Not bad, not good, just there. Same here.

“When I Paint My Masterpiece” by Josh Turner

I’ve never been able to listen to Turner’s voice without wondering if he is actually a robot-maker’s first attempt at a Randy Travis android. Really, why is he on this record?

“Life is a Carnival” by Trevor Hall

Jack Johnson should be one too many Dave Matthews wannabes for any compilation album. Adding this guy is just unpardonable.

“Lookout Cleveland” by Jackie Greene

One of the very best-sounding recordings The Band ever made, and an easy one to completely ruin. But Greene captures some of the original’s energy, if not the strong waves of pure sound, while doing the vocal just different enough to be interesting.

“Rockin’ Chair” by Death Cab For Cutie

An airy, languid arrangement with resonant piano, ghost-choir harmony and Ben Gibbard’s vocal, which would sound right at home fronting the Jayhawks circa Hollywood Town Hall.

“Long Steel Rail” by Riley Baugus

Riley Baugus
Long Steel Rail
Sugar Hill Records
4 Stars (out of 5)

Riley Baugus seems to have become everyone’s guest old-time musician of choice, and for good reason. Long Steel Rail places the North Carolina native front and center not only on his Sugar Hill debut, but also among the preeminent purveyors of southern Appalachian music.

Baugus bursts into the opening title track with passionate, percussive banjo work and maintains his intensity as he rolls through fourteen tracks of mostly public domain or traditional material. Compelling arrangements span solo a cappella numbers to three-piece string band romps with co-producers Dirk Powell and Tim O’Brien and one four-piece with guest fiddler Joe Thrift.

The solo pieces in particular demonstrate Baugus’ astounding versatility. On the banjo, he collects Mississippi musician Thaddeus Willingham’s bluesy version of “Rove Riley Rove” and dissects Roscoe Holcomb’s two-finger technique on “Willow Tree.” He turns to Lee Monroe Presnell for the fiddle ballad “George Collins,” and he culls the New Baptist Songbook for his raw unaccompanied rendition of “Wandering Boy.”

Besides the recordings and songbooks, Baugus has learned first-hand by playing with traditional music titans Tommy Jarrell, Robert Sykes, and Dix Freeman and former Camp Creek Boys Verlin Clifton and Paul Sutphin. As a consequence of his total immersion into the music, Riley Baugus has evolved into a master himself.

by Tim Walsh

Levon Helm’s Ramble On The Road! at the Ryman

Levon Helm’s Ramble On The Road!
The Levon Helm Band and Ollabelle
with special guests Emmylou Harris, Sam Bush, Buddy Miller, John Hiatt, Fred Carter Jr., Sheryl Crow, Ricky Skaggs and Lee Roy Parnell.
Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN July 18, 2007

I was raised on a diet of classics – Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, and Little Feat. Mom loved the Beatles, but didn’t like the Stones (she had no Sympathy for the Devil), though we owned both groups’ entire early record collections. I was taught to revere these musical figures in the same way that many children honored George Washington, Winston Churchill, or Ben Franklin. They were the architects of music as I knew it.

Standing right in the middle of all this glorious historical noise was The Band. Instigators of constant Annie versus Fanny debates and giggles, The Band’s albums were likely the first I actually purchased on my own rather than surreptitiously removing from my mother’s CD collection. (I had already claimed all of her records long ago).

This all serves as a preface to understanding the out-of-body glory that I experienced when Levon Helm (drummer, mandolinist, and singer for The Band and roots music aficionado) took the stage of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Wednesday, July 18th for his “Ramble on the Road,” put on by the Americana Music Association.

Levon, along with his incredibly talented band, followed a rollicking opening performance by Ollabelle, a group that includes his daughter, Amy who is no slouch in the vocals. Levon and his band jumped into “Mail Train,” immediately captivating the audience of young and old. Levon and friends played my favorite Band tune, “Ophelia,” early on, filling the Ryman with electricity. The blues tunes that filled up most of the set were uniquely suited to Levon’s older, life-worn and sometime illness-plagued voice, giving him a genuine, salt-of-the-earth, seen-it-all, quality which was absolutely on target.

Sam Bush came out on stage to play mandolin and sing on “Sitting on Top of the World,” and Little Sammy Davis joined in for “Scratch My Back.” Both Sam and Sammy sat side stage when they weren’t up front performing themselves, visibly enjoying the experience. Buddy Miller played his song “Wide River,” and was joined by Emmylou Harris for “Rough and Rocky” and (oh heavens!) “Evangeline,” with Levon on the mandolin. Helm and the gang followed these up with “Rag Mama Rag,” with Levon eventually moving back over to the drums for “The Shape I’m In,” “Chest Fever,” and “Rock and Roll Shoes.” Lee Roy Parnell (another side-stage viewer) came out to play on “The Weight,” an experience that was only topped by the final song, “I Shall Be Released,” during which the previous guests along with audience members Sheryl Crow, Ricky Skaggs, and John Hiatt joined in.

I wouldn’t have missed this concert for anything, and I feel pretty confident that those on stage were of the same mind. At one point, Levon leaned over to the microphone and said “Thank you for being here with me on this best night of life.” He looked to be having a blast the entire time, never showing signs of wearing out despite the full energy thrown into each song. He had a grin throughout the entire performance like a kid who has just been told he can have whatever he wants at the candy store. I shared the same grin.

by Katy Leonard