Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Crafted by one of the most impressive and well-regarded instrumental bluegrass groups working the circuit, Michael Cleveland’s third album since striking out on his own with Flamekeeper is every bit as formidable as its predecessors.
Each Cleveland album has brought a change in personnel and Fired Up is no exception. Gone from Leavin’ Town are impressive lead singer Todd Rakestraw and banjoist John Mark Batchelor. In their place is long-time Cleveland collaborator Tom Adams on lead vocals and guitar and Jessie Baker on banjo. Marshall Wilborn returns on bass and Jesse Brock remains as Flamekeeper’s mandolinist, a position he has held since the band’s inception.
Fired Up contains a freshness born of comfort and spontaneity. While these concepts may appear in dissonance, Cleveland and his crew understands their role in creating the positive atmosphere that produces exceptional bluegrass music.
Since performing as a member of the Bluegrass Youth All-Stars in 1993, Michael Cleveland has demonstrated that he is the face of tradition-based bluegrass fiddling. Eight-time IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year (including a current streak of five years), he and Flamekeeper have also walked away with the last four Instrumental Group of the Year accolades.
On stage, no one enjoys himself more than Cleveland and he possesses the verve necessary to translate this energy in the recording studio. A country-influenced tune such as Tom Adams’ “I’m Yours” benefits from the mournful elements emanating from Cleveland’s fiddle. When things get fiery, as on Buddy Spicher’s “Goin’ Up Dry Branch,” Cleveland demonstrates yet again that few can carry a tune as efficiently as he.
Out of necessity, Tom Adams has re-crafted himself as a darn fine guitar player and a quality lead voice. When last heard as a lead singer on Bill Emerson’s Southern album, Adams displayed a serviceable but not terribly distinctive voice. Throughout Fired Up, Adams—augmented by Jesse Brock’s and Marshall Wilborn’s harmonies—sings like a man with something to prove. “The Nights Are So Long” and “Dixie Special” are just two songs that offer evidence that Adams has the qualities necessary to front a first-tier bluegrass outfit.
Marshall Wilborn takes a trio of sweetly-voiced leads, including on the album’s emotionally charged closer “Bigger Hands Than Mine.” Inspired to write the song by Lynn Morris’ journey recovering from a stroke, Wilborn is joined on this track by Vince Gill who offers subtle tenor vocals. Truly a band effort, Cleveland’s fiddle weaves through the melody while Brock’s mandolin notes add texture to the song.
Awarded IBMA Mandolinist of the Year only once, Jesse Brock has long provided terrific mandolin playing in every band with which he performs. As a member of both the Lynn Morris Band with Wilborn and Dale Ann Bradley’s Coon Creek with Cleveland, Brock has demonstrated his abilities as an intuitive accompanist. On Fired Up, Brock’s abilities as a tenor singer are well-represented and his mandolin playing is second to none. Listening to his contributions on “I’ve Got the Railroad Blues,” “Slowly,” and David McLaughlin’s “Going Back to Old Virginia” one is aware we’re listening to a modern master of the mandolin.
If you’re going to play bluegrass, you had better have a 5-string in the band, and Cleveland had found one of the best young players in Jessie Baker. Baker has since moved on to play in Quicksilver, but throughout this album one can hear why Doyle Lawson came a-knockin’.
A band of song hoarders, Flamekeeper have delved into their various notebooks and album collections to assemble a terrific set. Raiding their collective memories, songs from Tom T. Hall, Webb Pierce, Dudley Connell, and others are reborn in exceptional bluegrass performances. Tom Adams contributes five original songs with Wilborn, Brock, and Baker each offering up a single number.
Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper have done it again. With Fired Up they have released an album that builds on the strengths of Leavin’ Town, furthering their vision of 21st-century bluegrass.