“The Game” by Blue Highway

Blue Highway
The Game
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

It’s hard to write a review of an album you know is going to be good. Blue Highway started with a five-man lineup 20 years and 10 albums ago, and it’s still the same five guys making great music (Tom Adams replaced Jason Burleson on banjo for the group 1999′s self-titled fourth album.)

All the elements of this versatile and durable combo are in place for the 12 tracks and 40 minutes of The Game: Burleson’s firm right hand, three singer-songwriters—Shawn Lane (mandolin and fiddle), Tim Stafford (guitar), and Wayne Taylor (bass)—who could easily front their own bands, and the second greatest Dobro player to ever put steel on steel in Rob Ickes.

“The Game,” “Where Jasmine Grows,” and, especially, “Talk is Cheap” are the kind of groove-heavy tracks that Blue Highway does better than anyone else.

“Just to Have a Job,” “All the Things You Do,” and “Remind Me of You” are the kind of irrepressible, perfectly crafted and sung tunes that outclass just about every other bluegrass songwriter.

Burleson’s celtic hop “Dogtown” and Ickes’ breezy “Funny Farm” are inventive instrumentals that aren’t merely excuses for showing off.

All of that is—please forgive me—just a little bit of a letdown. The Game is a great album, but it’s great in essentially the same way that their last two or three albums have been. I suppose that’s a little bit like complaining that Sandy Koufax just pitched another no-hitter, but I can’t help but think that tinkering with the mix a little—perhaps by collaborating with a producer (instead of self-producing) or by adding another musician (as the Del McCoury Band did with Jerry Douglas on The Cold Hard Facts)—would be a catalyst for something even more creative.

The traditional “Hicks’s Farewell” is the one track on The Game that a band member didn’t have a share in writing, and it’s the most striking—master musicians calling down the ancient tones that resonate deeper than even the best of modern craftsmanship.

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“Nighthawk” by Danny Roberts

Danny Roberts
Nighthawk
Mountain Home Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

When it comes to live appearances, Danny Roberts is in danger of being overshadowed by his teenaged daughter, Jaelee, and he’s not complaining. I recently saw her on the Bean Blossom stage and the girl can sing! She sings the lead on the Alison Krauss hit “Oh, Atlanta.” You can hear the youthfulness in her voice but she owns the song. If she chooses a career in music she’ll be a powerhouse (she’s also a fiddler). She also sings lead on “How Great Thou Art,” a softer approach but with as much vocal control and presence as her other track.

Oh, yeah, Danny Roberts. He’s a founding member of the Grascals and this is a solo mandolin project for him. He’s enlisted a fine crew of musicians to help, including bandmates Kristin Scott Benson (banjo) and Adam Haynes (fiddle), Tim Surrett (bass), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle), Jimmy Mattingly (fiddle), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin), Tony Wray (guitar) and Sam Bush (mandolin and fiddle). Good picking? Do you need to ask?

Along with a majority of tracks on this projects, Roberts composed the title number, a medium-speed instrumental with some intricate parts and interesting progressions. “F-5 Rag” is a bit plainer but still a good number, featuring an extended guitar break by Wray. “Danielle’s Waltz” is a change of pace, just Roberts and Benson switching leads while the other plays a contrasting backup.

“Big Stone Gap” moves at a speed that will tear off your hairpiece and features a nice break by fiddler Mattingly. “New Gil Ramble” has a fitting name as the tune seems to lope along at an easy pace, just like someone off on a ramble. It features an interesting section with Benson (banjo) and Wray (guitar) trading phrases. “Walking To Winslow” has the same easygoing feel and again has the Benson-Wray trading of licks. Both feature a second mandolinist (McCoury / Mike Compton) and, if you listen close, you can hear some spots where they trade licks with Roberts.

“I Went Down a Beggar” is a much-recorded gospel number that features spouse Andrea Roberts (lead) and daughter Jaelee (harmony). They blend well and do an excellent job on this good old number. The other cuts are “Derrington Drive,” another hard driving, fast moving tune; “Coppingers Court” is a lilting, reel-like number with a section played in a minor key; “You’ll Have That” is a medium speed, danceable number. “Swing-A-Long” is a change of pace from all the other numbers, a bit of swing as the name implies.

If you like instrumental packages you’ll enjoy this CD. There’s variety and excellent musicianship. The bonus is a preview of a young singer who can make a name for herself in this business.

“A Dotted Line” by Nickel Creek

Nickel Creek
A Dotted Line
Nonesuch Records
2 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

It’s been a decade and a half since Nickel Creek released their self-titled third album, the one that introduced them to music fans outside the bluegrass festival circuit that Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and her brother Sean Watkins had been popular on since they were kids.

Now in their thirties, each is rightly considered among the very best musicians on their instruments—especially Thile, who is nothing less than the Babe Ruth of the mandolin. But their sum here on A Dotted Line is considerably less substantive than their parts.

Twee is the word that kept coming to mind as I listened to this one several times. Rather than trusting their talent to just play, the trio can’t get out of their own way when it comes to writing, choosing and arranging material.

Even on what could have been a simple and beautiful instrumental track like “Elephant in the Corn,” they have to throw in a couple of bits that are—to copy and paste from my dictionary app—”affectedly quaint.”

I suppose Thile thinks he’s being Byronic on “Rest of My Life,” “Love of Mine,” and “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” but he’s really still just doing John Mayer’s tired act. What’s worse is that Sean tries the same thing on “Christmas Eve.” You’d think a couple of grown men would know how to talk to women more effectively, but I guess when you’re in a band, you can let that part of your game slide.

Sara comes through with lead vocals on the disc’s only two listenable tracks, the self-penned perfect pop of “Destination” and a gorgeous take on Sam Phillips’ “Where is Love Now.” Her voice is as sweet as it was on “The Hand Song,” but she’s got the maturity that her bandmates don’t.

The most important track here is the cover of “Hayloft,” by Canadian indie rockers Mother Mother. It took great skill to play and produce a track so awful, which makes it so disappointing that these three seem so intent on proving their hipster bona fides when they should just relax and play (see the Infamous Stringdusters).

“Taproot” by Three Tall Pines

Taproot
Three Tall Pines
self-released
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Taproot is a six-song, 23-minute EP, the third studio effort from New England bluegrass/Americana quartet Three Tall Pines.

Dan Bourdeau (guitar, vocals), Nick DiSebastian (bass, guitar, vocals), Joe Lurgio (mandolin, vocals), and Conor Smith (fiddle, vocals) are joined by guest banjo picker and producer Ron Cody on five bluegrass standards and one fine Bourdeau original—the decidedly Welchian “Stonewalls.”

TTP won’t be mistaken—especially vocally—for most of the bluegrass bands that include “Walls of Time,” “Crying Holy,” and “Angel Band” in their repetoire, and that’s a good thing. Their arrangments have a hint of the rock/jam band sound to them, getting the right mix of reverent and refreshing.

Smith’s playing throughout is especially good, and he’s joined on two tracks by a couple of fellow fiddlers to great effect: Britanny Haas on a soaring “Raleigh & Spencer” and by Haas and Lauren Rioux on “With Body & Soul.”

This was my first notice of TTP, and I’ll be looking forward to more material, especially original compostions as good as the lone example here.

“Let it Go” by the Infamous Stringdusters

The Infamous Stringdusters
Let it Go
High Country Recordings
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The bass player usually is mentioned last, but Travis Book’s work is what makes this fifth studio album by the Infamous Stringdusters one of the very best acoustic albums that I’ve heard in a while.

So many bands attempting to transcend their nominal bluegrass origins go bashing away as hard and fast as they can, leaving drive and direction out of it altogether. The most readily apparent sign of this is usually bassist who can’t quite keep up. Then you have players like Book (as well as the great Mike Bub) who are the lead dogs, giving those closer to the sled more room to work.

The 11-track, 40-minute Let it Go is the work of a band that seems to play, sing, and even think, as one. So much so that the CD packaging doesn’t identify the band members, much less give a track by track accounting of who’s playing and singing what, as is customary on many bluegrass releases, especially the ones with hired studio aces.

The complete sound is what the Stringdusters are concerned with and the sound they make here has the drive of a band like Blue Highway—with brighter, more melodic textures—backed by musicianship about as good as the Punch Brothers without the pretentious wankery.

The instrumental breaks are short and collaborative, with the Dobro or fiddle often running in one channel the same quick zigs and zags as the banjo in the opposite. The guitar adds depth to Book’s bass, and occasionally steps out for some crisp and rich flatpicked solos.

And all of this is done in support of some great singing and songwriting—I’ve been listening constantly to “I’ll Get Away,” “Where the River Runs Cold,” and “Summercamp” the last couple of weeks, whether through speakers, headphones, or just my mind.

“Summercamp” is a three-and-a-half-minute masterpiece that sounds like what you would get if you locked Ron Sexsmith and the mid-1970s Seldom Scene in the studio and told them they couldn’t come out until they had a radio hit.

As we’re beginning summer in our hemisphere, I couldn’t recommend more highly a new album to add to your musical rotation for the sunny days ahead.

“Ancient Dreams” by Red June

Red June
Ancient Dreams
Organic Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Since 2010, the North Carolina trio Red June has become increasingly well-regarded within acoustic Americana and folk music circles for their warm three-part harmonies, insightful writing, and compelling musicianship.

Ancient Dreams is their third album, and first with outside label support. While their previous albums were in many ways spectacular (consider, as example, Remember Me Well‘s “Biscuits and Honey” and “McKinney Blues” or Beauty Will Come‘s “Cloud of Dust” and “Soul’s Repair”), Ancient Dreams sees the band taking steps forward to further define their space within an increasingly crowded artistic marketplace.

Red June—Will Straughan, Natalya Weinstein, and John Cloyd Miller—combine traditions of southern roots music—country, old-time, and bluegrass—with influences from Weinstein’s classical music background and the vocal precision of the folk-pop world.

Working with producer Tim Surrett (who doubles on upright bass), the trio have maintained their penchant for creating original songs that could emanate from no other roots outfit. Red June, in the course of three albums over five years, have defined their sound. And it is a wonderful one.

Straughan’s “Black Mountain Night” has evocative lyrics (“I swear as I look down, from this mountain on that town, For a moment, everything’s alright”) from which genuine emotion is wrung.

Miller’s “Where We Started” examines the cyclical nature of relationships, and his “I Still Wait”—sung with Weinstein—is an acceptance of the fleeting connections made when one is firmly committed to a personal existence.

Their vocal mastery is ably demonstrated throughout the album’s eleven songs, perhaps never more so than within “I Am Free,” the album’s a cappella centerpiece. Straughan’s resonator contributions never overwhelm the blend of natural vocal harmony the three share; rather, the guitar’s mournful notes accentuate the intensity of this seemingly organic connection. Similarly, Weinstein’s fiddle complements the sparse instrumental canvas the band utilizes.

A pair of instrumentals—“31″ and “Gabriel’s Storm”—provide ample evidence that Red June is a multi-dimensional band worth a listen for many reasons.

Red June’s Ancient Dreams serves as more than a calling card from an emerging artistic collaboration. It is a formidable achievement, attuned to modern approaches in the creation of timeless sounds.

“Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell” by Steve Martin

Steve Martin
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell
Rounder Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Steep Canyon Rangers play good music. “Knob Creek” is as pretty a bluegrass tune as I’ve ever heard. Their album Nobody Knows You won the 2013 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album and 2012′s Rare Bird Alert was nominated for the same award. In 2011 the Rangers and Steve Martin won Entertainers of the year at IBMA. Pretty heady stuff.

I saw the Rangers in Georgia a few years ago. I liked the show. I like Steve Martin. I haven’t heard much of them together because I don’t often listen to radio. My go-to-work car doesn’t have satellite radio and my wife likes the ’60′s channel in her car. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I started the CD and that’s why you’re reading these reviews, trying to decide if a CD is worth your money.

This package includes a DVD (the show was taped live) and the DVD tells a better story than the CD. The DVD has two additional tracks and includes the stage banter, audience shots, and gives you better context than the CD. From the start it’s clear that this is the Steve Martin show. He’s the front man, he tells the jokes and plays or trades lead on the banjo. When you visit SCR’s website it becomes clear this is a collaboration but they are in a supporting role with Martin (50 shows a year) while keeping their identity as they perform separate from him. Other clues about what to expect are subtle: the website listing shows SCR last after Martin and Edie Brickell and SCR’s members aren’t named in the package.

The SCR aren’t just window dressing, though. The first number is “Katie Mae,” a hot one that whets your bluegrass appetite. Despite not being familiar with it I figured it was adapted from Flatt & Scruggs or someone like them, but the only other number with that name I can find is a Grateful Dead piece adapted from the blues and they aren’t even cousins. It turns out it was composed by Brickell. Other than the music on “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” (by SCR members) the songs all list Martin or Brickell as composer or co-composer and SCR isn’t involved. “Katie Mae” on the DVD shows Martin playing lead banjo, trading off in spots with Graham Sharp. Martin’s a good banjo player and enjoys carrying the bluegrass message in his TV appearances.

One of Martin’s funny lines is at 11:00 on the DVD: “I know what you’re thinking: There’s Steve Martin, just another Hollywood dilettante hitching a ride on the bluegrass gravy train.” It’s hard to tell from shots of the audience how many of them follow bluegrass—I suspect a substantial number were there for the Steve Martin show—but they liked that line while veteran bluegrassers really understand the punch line. “Jubilation Day” is one of his comedy song routines (a breaking up story from a “whew, it’s over perspective”) and the bass player takes an impressive break on the number. “The Crow” is a good instrumental bluegrass number and is the title track of Martin’s 2009 album that won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album at the 52nd Grammy Awards.

Edie Brickell is associated with the New Bohemians and the Gaddabouts, and is now closely allied with Martin and his bluegrass shows. She comes in at 26:40 (DVD) to sing “Get Along Stray Dog.” This is more old-timey than anything else. The music takes a turn at this point to some sort of fusion between old-time, folk, and Irish jig with her singing somewhere in Dylan’s camp, breathy with a rising and falling inflection. There’s an electric guitar and drums and a keyboard have been added. The audience liked it. Bill Monroe fans probably not so much. It’s unclear if she has a genre in mind. I suspect she’s following her own muse: infused with acoustic music but still very influenced by rock/pop. If you listen to “Love Like We Do” (New Bohemians) you’ll find a lot of similarities with her work on this CD.

“Stand and Deliver” is the SCR (Martin and Brickell are off stage) plus some percussion doing bluegrass on the progressive side. They follow that with “Hunger,” a blues number with an electric guitar. Not bluegrass but I liked the song and the arrangement.

There’s far too much material to cover it all, especially on the DVD. Some other highlights are “Pretty Little One,” close to a bluegrass story song but it also has an old-time sound. The verses tend to have a repetitious melody and go on and on with both murder and comedy woven into the lyrics. Martin sings lead with Brickell joining in now and then. Next “Auden’s Train” kicks off, credited to Martin and Nicky Sanders. That may confuse you because it’s the “Orange Blossom Special” with lyrics borrowed from W H Auden’s Calypso.

Woody Platt (guitar) sings lead on “Daddy Played The Banjo,” a Martin number that makes good bluegrass. “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” isn’t politically correct, but it’s funny. Maybe we worry too much about being politically correct.

Bluegrass fans attend a performance or buy a CD expecting the music to be the show. Some of the best bluegrass bands out there don’t try too hard at showmanship. When you buy this package expect the Steve Martin show with music added. You’ll enjoy the DVD if you’re a Steve Martin fan because he puts on a good show. If you’re considering the CD expecting more “Knob Creek” bluegrass, you’ll be a little disappointed.

“Into My Own” by Bryan Sutton

Bryan Sutton
Into My Own
Sugar Hill Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Bryan Sutton keeps select company with the very best musicians in bluegrass, those musicians who may have peers but no superiors. He is well known in the bluegrass and country worlds, with credits on many CDs. He plays with speed and drive, qualities often confused by people unfamiliar with this kind of music. A performance without drive, no matter how fast, is like fishing in a boat on a calm lake. More speed just means the fish are biting. Drive is being on that boat on a river. A slow song with drive is the Mississippi; a fast one with drive is the Colorado. Drive pulls you with the song, makes you anticipate the next measure. It is good.

Given Sutton’s association with bluegrass, you might be surprised if you pick up his new CD. This is better described as (mostly) acoustic music rather than bluegrass, because he ventures into old-time numbers and jazz as well as some countrygrass, the body of music that exists in both worlds of bluegrass and country. “Cumberland Reel” is played with speed in 4/4 time. It features interesting interplay between Sutton, fiddler Stuart Duncan, Noam Pikelny on banjo and Sam Bush playing mandolin. The bassist is Greg Garrison. There are many numbers like this that are not in the usual bluegrass playbook but enjoyed by bluegrass pickers. “Watson’s Blues,” on the other hand, isn’t quite a standard, but it was composed by Bill Monroe as a tribute to Doc Watson. Bluegrass bands need to learn this one again.

“Frisell’s Rag” is a delightful, jazzy interchange of melody lines between Sutton, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and excellent bass work by Dennis Crouch. If your image of waltzes is “Kentucky Waltz,” or maybe ladies in long dresses dancing to Blue Danube, Sutton’s composition “Overton Waltz” will be a surprise. It is in 3/4 time but the similarities end there. It’s fast and, again, features interplay between all the lead instruments (Sutton-Pikelny-Bush-Duncan).

Sutton’s selection of numbers switches types of music with abandon. “Ole Blake,” another number by Sutton, could easily be heard as a traditional, old-time number like “Swannanoa Tunnel.” The tunnel is a real place near Asheville and the song was recorded in the ’20′s by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, sung here by Ronnie McCoury. Joining on the instrumental side is brother Rob McCoury on banjo and Jason Carter playing fiddle. “Log Jam” has a more modern sound, could be bluegrass but has some jazz influences as well. “Anyhow, I Love You,” a Guy Clarke number, another Sutton and McCourys track, is a version I prefer over Lyle Lovett’s intepretation.

This is good music. Don’t expect pure bluegrass even though it’s loaded with bluegrass artists, but if your tastes are a little more eclectic than Jimmy Martin and Flatt & Scruggs—and you like great guitar picking—you’re going to enjoy it.

“I’ll Swing My Hammer with Both My Hands” by Cahalen Morrison & Eli West

Cahalen Morrison & Eli West
I’ll Swing My Hammer with Both My Hands
No label
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske
Inspired equally by the spirit of the classic forebears of old-time music and later arriving artists who have continually refined the music as an important contemporary art, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West have now released three albums of modern minimalist musical lore, each exceeding that which came before it.

A taste of bluegrass, a dollop of folk, a sprinkling of modern stringband adventurousness, and a healthy measure of fresh approaches to old-timey songs, and you have the recipe to distinguish this duo within the multitudes creating modern folk-based, acoustic music.

Morrison and West are stalwarts of the Pacific Northwest music scene, and  I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands finds them incorporating additional musicians within their fold. Most prominent perhaps are fiddlers Ryan Drickey and Brittany Haas who twin up and complement Morrison and West throughout. Working without liner notes, I’m unable to distinguish between who is playing bouzouki where—O’Brien, Morrison, and West each contribute on that instrument, while O’Brien and Morrison also play mandolin.

Morrison’s old-timey banjo playing is beautiful, especially on songs like “James is Out” and “Fiddlehead Fern,” while West’s guitar parts are equally impressive; “Ritzville”/”Steamboats On the Saskatchewan” is a veritable showcase for the ensemble, and West’s guitar on “Livin’ in America” is captivating.

Vocally, Morrison continues to take most of the leads—deep, gritty expressions of open spaces, challenged individuals, and sorrowful times. West’s vocal harmony is rich, an ideal foil to Morrison, who is vocally reminiscent of O’Brien. West also takes the lead on the exceptional “Pocket Full of Dust.”

The duo’s intrinsic vitality provides the album with a consistency in sound, firmly ingrained in their experiences. Grounded by the music of Norman Blake, Kelly Joe Phelps, and certainly producer Tim O’Brien as they are, one can also appreciate their wholly original approach to acoustic roots music. “The Natural Thing to Do” is a straight ahead ‘tear in my beer’ country shuffle, whereas the wordy “Anxious Rows” clips along at the pace of a fiddle contest burner, but with an emotional depth seldom encountered .

As with the previous Our Lady of the Tall Trees, the majority of the songs are Morrison originals but there are a few familiar songs included as well. The Louvin’s mournful “Lorene” is given a gorgeous treatment. Alice Gerrard’s melancholy “Voices of Evening” is appropriately aching, while “Green Pastures” raises the spirit.

With this stellar creation, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West are sure to continue to expand their listening base, and it shouldn’t be too long before they are widely appreciated by those who enjoy riveting, fresh expressions of old-time music.

“Long Time…Seldom Scene” by the Seldom Scene

The Seldom Scene
Long Time…Seldom Scene
Smithsonian Folkways
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

It’s been more than 40 years since the Seldom Scene started their run as perhaps the most influential bluegrass band ever to emerge after the music’s founding generation, and this 16-track, 55-minute disc celebrates that heritage with the band’s current lineup playing some of their best-loved songs—and with guest appearances from founding members Tom Gray (bass) and John Starling (lead vocals, guitar).

Founding member Ben Eldridge (banjo)—whose versatile and inventive playing has long been the key element in integrating the Scene’s mastery of traditional bluegrass with their knack for innovation—is still the driving force, bringing vitality to songs he’s picked thousands of times. Just compare his old-school drive on “Little Georgia Rose” and “I’ll Be No Stranger There” to the deft backing on Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind.” (The latter song features Emmylou Harris, whose famous partnership with Parsons makes her the perfect fit to help on this one.)

The relative newcomers—Dudley Connell (guitar, vocals), Lou Reid (mandolin, vocals), Fred Travers (Dobro, vocals) and Ronnie Simpkins (upright bass, bass vocals)—all joined the Scene at different times, making each track an interesting listen as one tries to remember who played on what original recording, or on a favorite live performance from years ago. Occasional Scene contributors Chris Eldridge (guitar, son of Ben) and Rickie Simpkins (fiddle, brother of Ronnie) round out the family for this recording.

Even without Starling in the mix (as he is on the beyond-magnificent “Wait a Minute,” the swaggering “Mean Mother Blues,” and a restrained, simmering arrangement of Monroe’s “With Body and Soul”), the triumvirate of Connell, Reid, and Travers are a vocal team with more sonic and emotional range than any other band working today, even Blue Highway.

Travers is perfect for singer-songwriter material like “Walk Through This World with Me,” Reid’s high and clear tenor is made for progressive ‘grass cuts like “Big Train (From Memphis)” and “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round,” and Connell rips through traditional arrangements like John Prine’s “Paradise” and Hazel Dickens’ “My Better Years” with his characteristic abandon. (The latter cut is, as far as I can tell, the only one the Scene had not put on record before now, but was one of Connell’s showpieces when he fronted the Johnson Mountain Boys.)

The presence that you can’t help but feel on this record is that of John Duffey, who died in 1996. One of the greatest voices and largest personalities in bluegrass history, he’s of course irreplaceable, but his daring and authoritative presence lives on in a band that’s been extending his legacy for nearly as long as Duffey spent shaping that legacy.

The final element that makes this a perfect recording—one that should be a hands down winner for the IBMA Award for Recorded Event of the Year—is the attractive packaging and 35-page booklet presented by Smithsonian Folkways. I love digital music as much as the next person, but this one belongs on the shelf of everyone with even a passing interest in bluegrass music in particular, or American music in general.