Somewhere in the Middle
4½ stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
It’s always nice to see a banjo picker out front as singer, songwriter, and bandleader—that’s what Robert Mabe does quite nicely on Somewhere in the Middle, which is his debut album as far as I can tell.
The disc’s 10 tracks—eight songs bookended by the brief instrumentals “Intro” and “Outro”—contain plenty of strong bluegrass picking and solidly written songs in just a little more than a half hour.
“What You Deserve/Into the Sun,” “Molly,” and “Bottle” have strong, McCoury-style arrangements, with Mabe’s banjo, Clay Jones’ guitar, Patrick McAvinue’s fiddle, and Jack Dunlap’s mandolin adding sharp edges strong supports to Mabe’s workmanlike lead vocals. “Bottle of Tears” is a fine drunken heartbreak song with an easy melody, with McAvinue’s fiddle motif plaintively quoting from Reno & Smiley’s “I Know You’re Married (But I Love You Still).”
Mabe and his band range a little farther afield with “Nothing but Highway,” a soaring, propulsive number with a jamgrass feel, and the sober Celtic folk of the traditional number “Black Waterside,” featuring Mabe in a duet with his wife, Jillian Mabe.
The gentle, intricate banjo solo “Madeline’s Alright” showcases Mabe’s skill as a composer, while the instrumental highlight of this project comes in the full band’s splendid performance of “Music for a Found Harmonium,” a Penguin Cafe Orchestra instrumental composed by Simon Jeffes, that incorporates two traditional melodies, “Musical Priest” and “Merry Blacksmith.” Led by David Shepherd’s nimble bass—both bowed and plucked—Mabe and company turn in three minutes of musical bliss.