Categories
Music Reviews

Uncle Walt’s Band

Uncle Walt’s Band

Anthology

Omnivore Recordings

The existence of this collection by Uncle Walt’s Band – Walter Hyatt, David Ball and Descamps Hood – proves that no matter how much music you listen to, there is always something new to discover. I was familiar with Hyatt, whose death in the ValuJet crash in 1996 spawned folks such as Lyle Lovett and Jimmie Dale Gilmore to record his songs in tribute, but I hadn’t encountered the Spartanburg, South Carolina band until now. To say I was blown away would be understatement. An acoustic trio that sounds as if David Grisman and The Beatles made an album, with a strong Texas songwriter influence? Sign me up!

This 21 cut CD brings together moments from the groups 4 records from the ’70s, starting with “Seat of Logic” from the 1974 album, Blame It On The Bossanova, where their trademark harmonies are front and center. Lyle Lovett is famous for saying “Those boys from Carolina they sure enough could sing”, and Lyle ain’t woofing. The mixture of their voices, aligning together in a sort of ’50s vocal jazz group style, combined with the rich acoustic guitars and bass, really sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard. The three were great songwriters, with moments such as Ball’s “Don’t You Think I Feel It Too”, Hyatt’s “Deeper Than Love” or Hood’s “Walking Angel”, any of which would be the standout cut on any normal release, but these guys records were an embarrassment of riches.

Anthology features live moments such as their version of the standard “Sitting On Top of The World”, and “One Meatball”, made famous by Ry Cooder, and shows how the groups voices and playing fit together seamlessly, and what a loss it was when the group disbanded. You might not have heard of Uncle Walt’s Band, but once encountered, you’ll never forget their swinging, vocally complex tunes. Wonderful, wonderful.

omnivorerecordings.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Peter Rowan

Peter Rowan

My Aloha!

Omnivore Recordings

One cannot overstate Peter Rowan’s immense influence on American music. Still writing, recording and performing at age 74, his resume is without equal. In 1965 he became one of Bill Monroe’s “Bluegrass Boys”. After leaving Monroe in 1967 he formed Earth Opera with the great David Grisman, a few years later he joined the progressive bluegrass/country band Seatrain. Then in the early ’70s he was a part of Muleskinner, with Byrd’s guitarist Clarence White, and in 1973 he and Grisman formed Old and in the Way which featured Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia on banjo. Along the way he wrote staples of the genre such as “Panama Red” and “Midnight Moonlight”. His musical curiosity has led him to explore reggae with Crucial Reggae, roots music with Twang an’ Groove, and Eastern philosophy on his 2014 release Dharma Blues.

Rowan lives part of the year in Hawaii, and of course he was captivated by the sounds around him, and My Aloha! is the delightful result. Recorded with local musicians, and using vintage instruments, the album sounds exactly what you would expect from the dean of American roots/acoustic music. Rowan wrote the 11 songs contained here, and from the opener “My Blue Hula Girl” to the charming “Lotus Flower”, Rowan’s country background meshes with the Pacific ambiance to create yet another aspect of Rowan’s vast musical genius. Hawaiian music is no stranger to country music – as the liner notes show, the “Singing Brakeman”, Jimmie Rodgers sold ukuleles at his shows, and scores of country artists have adapted the rhythm of the islands to their own ends, but perhaps none with such passion as Rowan has done on My Aloha!.

Peter Rowan is one of the few artists that whose entire output is both equally vital – and good fun. From the “high lonesome” sound of bluegrass with Bill Monroe, to the outlaw country of “Panama Red” up to My Aloha! one can only imagine where his musical taste will lead. I for one can’t wait.

www.peter-rowan.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Mr. Sun

Mr. Sun

The People Need Light

Compass Records

From his early days as a original member of the David Grisman Quintet, or as a member of Montreux or the Turtle Island String Quartet, violinist Darol Anger has been at the cutting edge of acoustic music, and with his newest ensemble, Mr. Sun on The People Need Light, his evocative fiddle playing has found new avenues in which to cast its playful yet consummate skill. Along with Anger Mr. Sun consists of mandolin player and occasional vocalist Joe Walsh from The Gibson Brothers, Grant Gordy from various David Grisman groups, and bassist Ethan Jodziewicz, and together they call their sound “American String Band Music from an intergenerational tribe” and that it is.

Starting off with one of the two vocal numbers on the record, “The Likes of You” finds the group sounding a bit like the great Aereo-Plain band of John Hartford, which is to say brilliant musicians putting their strengths together in the cause of the song, never overshadowing each other or the tune. It’s a great way to introduce the band, and the rest of the 11 tracks give each artist a chance to shine and illustrate that “String bands” or acoustic music as a whole has certainly progressed from its old-time or bluegrass origins and the creation of “Dawg Music” from the master Grisman.

Today there are a plethora of sounds, from the funked-out jazz of Bela Fleck to the indescribable Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile, and Mr. Sun sits comfortably amid them all. From their take on the chestnut “If I Were A Bell” to originals such as “Hunter’s Permit” and a re-take of Anger’s “Key Signator”, (first heard on his debut, Fiddlistics from 1979), the four piece is a testament to the virtuosity of each, from the driving flatpicking of Gordy in concert with the melodious mandolin of Walsh. And of course Darol Anger again does things with a fiddle that we haven’t heard since Grappelli, with soaring lines of equal parts whimsy and melodic force, propelling the groups sound into unexpected areas. Mr. Sun’s The People Need Light is a breathless, toe-tapping romp of a good time.

www.compassrecords.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Peter Rowan

Peter Rowan

Dharma Blues

Omnivore Recordings

72 year old Buddhist Peter Rowan may well have the best resume in the business. In 1966 he auditioned for Bill Monroe, and was a “Bluegrass Boy” until 1967. From there he partnered with mandolin player David Grisman and founded Earth Opera, hitting the hippie scene opening for among others The Doors. Returning to his bluegrass roots he formed the old time super-group Muleskinner with Grisman, legendary banjo innovator Bill Keith and the king of the bluegrass and roots guitar, Clarence White. Not willing to rest, he showed up in Old and In The Way with Jerry Garcia and Vassar Clements on fiddle. Along the while he was a prodigious songwriter, penning such classics as “Panama Red,” “Midnight Moonlight” and “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy” for the underrated New Riders of the Purple Sage. He still performs with a variety of groups ranging from Twang & Groove, The Free Mexican Airforce and Peter Rowan & Crucial Reggae. One must admire his work ethic.

His discography boosts over 25 releases, and his newest, Dharma Blues ranks up there among his best. Opening with Rowan in full, spirited voice on “River of Time” where he uses a Sons of the Pioneers-type harmonies on distinctly metaphysical lyrical imagery- Well it’s rough and rocky and the water is wide/Sailing on the river of time/On my boat of love to the other side/Sailing on the river of time. The albums 12 cuts all follow a similar pattern, and while one might ponder what the Big Mon –Bill Monroe–might think of mixing Eastern philosophy with twang, it’s Peter Rowan’s claim to fame, and one that has over the years elevated him to a special place in the genre. Next up is “Raven”, which finds Rowan with Hot Tuna/Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Cassady and the sublime Gillian Welch on a bluesy ode to the creation of Poe. “Dharma Blues” highlights Rowan’s guitar prowess, with a subtle fingerpicked acoustic melding with the tamboura (a Asian sitar-like instrument) of Jody Stecher and the flute of Manose Singh while Rowan explores in song what Jack Kerouac attempted with this novel The Dharma Bums in 1958. Rowan goes from Ain’t no god up in heaven/Ain’t no devil down below before asking for his lost soul mate, Tell her I’m doin’ my time. It’s just one of the truly magical moments that one has come to treasure from Rowan, a man with his head philosophically in the clouds and but his feet firmly on the path of the temporal.

It is this dichotomy between the two sides of Peter Rowan’s life that brings such nuance and understated brilliance to his work, a work that has elevated what is sometimes a overtly traditional and hidebound form of music to something both elusive and yet familiar. Rowan is a rare talent that our culture is sadly lacking, a man who ponders the big questions while relating them to everyman, effortlessly. If you haven’t experienced the satori that is Peter Rowan, no time like the present, or as Zen teaches, “be here now”. Dharma Blues is a wondrous present from a masterful teacher.

www.omnivorerecordings.com, www.peter-rowan.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead

Dick’s Picks 32, 33, 34

Grateful Dead Productions

The Grateful Dead may well be the most documented musical phenomenon short of the Beatles that has ever existed. Despite having lost Jerry Garcia in 1995, the Grateful Dead’s popularity has never been stronger. The surviving members tour as “The Dead,” and each of the remaining members has taken the slogan “The music never stopped” far beyond what Garcia, Pigpen, and the rest imagined back in Haight-Asbury in the 1960s.

Which leads us to the popular series of live shows released under the title Dick’s Picks. Started in 1993 by Dead archivist Dick Latvala and continued after his death by David Lemieux, each is a full show from band tapes, soundboard recordings, or audience tapes. Number 32 is from 1982’s Alpine Valley Music Theatre, 33 is from two shows in Oakland in 1976, and the last is the Community War Memorial in Rochester, New York in 1977.

Now, I’m a Dead fan, no doubt. I saw them twice, once near the end of Garcia’s life, and have listened to countless hours of live tapes. I’m definitely “on the bus” as they say. But faced with these three shows — nine CDs of material, clocking in at over 10 hours of music — I give. The first cut I played was the 10/9/1976 opener “Promised Land” from the Oakland Coliseum. Oi. Opening a show with a Bob Weir-led Chuck Berry song is probably a wise move — gives the band and its fans a chance to get settled and comfortable for the long set of music to follow — but Weir, for whatever talents he has (I doubt Garcia, a true genius of American music, would have played with him for all those years if he wasn’t any good) seriously couldn’t sing a lick. His voice is weak, devoid of passion, and off-key. But hey, its the first song, the drugs haven’t kicked in, and by the next number, “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” from Jerry, you understand why you listen to the dreck — because it only makes the brilliance of Garcia even more pronounced.

But even momentary glimpses of fire from Garcia couldn’t lure me into a full submersion in these shows, and it all comes down to just how you relate to the Grateful Dead. When I’m in the mood, I can listen for weeks to all things Dead. Live shows, DVDs, and Jerry’s side projects with David Grisman or solo, all of it. But otherwise, the band leaves me cold. The Grateful Dead exist in their own time and place. Concert promoter Bill Graham once remarked “they’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones who do what they do.” And truer words have rarely been uttered. You either take the whole tab of acid or you don’t. For each classic Garcia solo you have to put up with Weir’s weak vocals, meandering drum solos (“Space”) and bar-band reject country covers. It’s all part of “the long, strange trip” that the band and their fans have been on for all these many years. But damn, if you’re not in mood, you can certainly relate to the old joke.

“What does a Deadhead say when the pot runs out?”

“Damn, this band sucks!”

Grateful Dead: www.realgonemusic.comwww.dead.net

Categories
Music Reviews

Tony Rice

Tony Rice

The Bill Monroe Collection

Rounder Records

It’s only fitting that for the centennial anniversary of Bill Monroe’s birth in 2011, Rounder would collect the champion flatpicker Tony Rice’s most memorable adaptations of the “Big Mon”s greatest songs. The Bill Monroe Collection features tracks from various Rice albums including 2002’s Lonesome Moonlight, Unit Of Measure from 2000, and various other Rice collaborations. And it’s all incredible. Perhaps more so than any other guitarist, Tony Rice has taken the genius of Bill Monroe’s music to another level. Bluegrass music, as invented by Monroe, is at its heart a simple music. Guitar, banjo, bass and mandolin all around a single microphone is the standard, the songs generally are old time fiddle tunes, and each instrument gets a few solos along the way.

But in the hands of Tony Rice, the guitar is anything but simple. First, he’s incredibly fast. I venture that no “shred” metal guitar player could hold a candle to him for sheer notes per measure, but the real joy in the music of Rice is the places he takes us when he plays. The mountain music of old time bluegrass takes on a jazz flavor in his hands, akin to the great Django Reinhardt replacing Lester Flatt in the Bluegrass Boys. Along with guitarist Norman Blake, mandolinist David Grisman and others, classic Monroe numbers such as “Muleskinner Blues” and “Molly and Tenbrooks” are given new life, and anyone who loves Bill Monroe or just acoustic music in general will enjoy this tribute by the legendary Tony Rice.

Rounder: www.rounder.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile

Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile

The Goat Rodeo Sessions

Sony Music

For those unfamiliar, a “goat rodeo” refers to a situation in which 100 things must go right in order for something to work. I don’t think this foursome had any trouble with it; you can almost hear the laughter and ease these musicians brought to the table in making this remarkable record. Remarkable for the quality of players, of course. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma is one of classical music’s most elite, Chris Thile has long been regarded as a master of the mandolin back to his teenage years in Nickel Creek. Bassist Edgar Meyer and violinist Stuart Duncan are certainly no slouches either. But together they make a sound that rivals their greatest successes.

Ma and Edgar Meyer had recorded together before, on Appalachian Journey and 1996’s Appalachia Waltz, and The Goat Rodeo Sessions has a bit of that element to it. Fiddle tunes seem to form the outlines of certain songs, but add in the classical elements of the violin and cello and now you’re looking at a whole new form of musical expression. Vocalist Aoife O’Donovan adds words to the mix on two cuts she sings with Thile, but you don’t need vocals for this record to be a success. Fans of acoustic music from the legendary Oregon to the genre-jumping David Grisman will feel at home here, and when Thile’s mandolin partners with Yo-Yo Ma’s cello to start the disc with “Attaboy,” your heart will race. I believe the goats have been successfully rodeoed.

sonymasterworks.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Jesse McReynolds & Friends

Jesse McReynolds & Friends

Songs of the Grateful Dead

Woodstock

I’m betting that if you had mentioned to Jesse McReynolds and his brother Jim back in 1947 that 50+ years hence Jesse would be recording a tribute album full of songs by a bunch of drug fiends and hippies you’d have earned yourself a rather sharp rebuke, if not a punch in the eye. But here it is, 2010 and one of the true masters of bluegrass mandolin, Jesse McReynolds, is picking sweet on a dozen Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter tunes, and they rarely have sounded as good.

McReynolds is credited with developing the “cross pick” style of mandolin playing, a more relaxed method than that of a Bill Monroe or David Grisman. He never sounds rushed, either vocally or instrumentally, and on numbers such as “Black Muddy River” or a weary, resigned “Loser” he gives the originals a run for the money. The album features occasional Garcia band mate David Nelson on vocals and Stu Allen, JGB Band member, on guitar. But it’s McReynolds’ effortless vocals and mando picking combined with the stellar songwriting of Garcia and Hunter that make Songs of the Grateful Dead such a memorable musical outing. Jerry Garcia wanted to be a Bluegrass Boy and play with Bill Monroe before he found fame as a counterculture hero, and at their core, these songs are simple folk songs that easily lend themselves to country adaptations. So put aside that moldy box of live tapes for a bit and experience the Grateful Dead, bluegrass style. It’s a trip!

Woodstock Records: www.woodstockrecords.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Muleskinner

Muleskinner

A Potpourri of a Bluegrass Jam

DBK Works

Muleskinner, which is as close as modern bluegrass has gotten to a super group, featured in its ranks mandolinist David Grisman, banjo picker Bill Keith, vocalist and guitarist Peter Rowan, fiddler Richard Greene and bassist John Kahn, along with the Paganini of country guitar, Clarence White. Although this group was around for only a brief time, they, much like the Grisman/Jerry Garcia-led “Old And In The Way,” converted many a listener (such as a young Alison Krauss) into bluegrass fanatics. And it’s easy to see why. Rowan, who had served for a time as a member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys (the bluegrass equivalent of Marine Corps basic training), brought his high lonesome voice, Grisman his free-wheeling 8 string style that would grow, over time, into “Dawg Music” and Clarence, well, Clarence did what he always did — redefined the limits of guitar every time he played. Running through a selection of standards — Monroe’s “Roanoke” and “Footprints in the Snow,” “Dark Hollow” and the chestnut “Whitehouse Blues” (updated to include references to Nixon and LBJ, instead of McKinley; this was the late ’60s, after all) — the interplay between musical souls is a wonder to behold. And on “Muleskinner Blues,” with White’s frantic yet assured Telecaster leading the way, they elevate folk music to near virtuosity.

Although all of the players went on to further musical adventures (sadly, not much more was heard from Clarence White, who was killed by a drunk driver not long after Muleskinner), the music captured here shows stellar players creating bluegrass magic, long before O Brother made such a thing cool. These guys were so cool, they smoked.

Categories
Music Reviews

Old & in the Gray

Old & in the Gray

Old & in the Gray

Acoustic Disc

When Old & in the Way was released in 1975, it caused some rock fans to peer over the wall and investigate “old timey” music. This was largely due to the presence of Jerry Garcia on banjo. Deadheads discovered bluegrass in a big way, and have been supporting various incarnations of this combo ever since. Now it’s 27 years later, Garcia is gone, but the spirit continues. Old & in the Gray reunites the basis of the original group — Peter Rowan on guitar, David “Dawg” Grisman on mandolin and Vassar Clements on fiddle. Herb Pedersen takes the spot on banjo that Jerry filled, and Bryn Bright replaces the late John Kahn on bass. The result is a fully enjoyable follow-up to a legendary bluegrass unit. If anything their playing sounds smoother, the voices fuller than all those years ago. Bluegrass is uniquely timeless music, so there is no fear of sounding dated, no matter when a record was recorded. Bill Monroe’s “On the Old Kentucky Shore,” John Hartford’s “Good Old Boys” and The Stanley Brothers’ “The Flood” all get loving workouts, and the group tosses a few surprises in the mix, one being a nifty version of The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” and even better, a haunting version of the Townes Van Zandt standard, “Pancho & Lefty.” They might be older and grayer, but these guys still bring it home.

Acoustic Disc: http://www.acousticdisc.com