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Posts Tagged ‘bluegrass’

CD Review: Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, “Rare Bird Alert”

Posted by dlockeretz on March 6, 2015

Listening to “Rare Bird Alert” is kind of like having dinner with a favorite uncle whom you haven’t seen for ages. You laugh, joke, perhaps debate and argue a little, perhaps reminisce about those who are no longer around. You leave with a lighter step, thinking, “Man, I forgot how much fun that could be!” At the same time, some of the truths your uncle laid upon you–not in a heavy handed manner but just by way of sharing his experiences–resonate with you for some time after. You always enjoyed your uncle but as an adult, you appreciate his wisdom more than when you were younger.

Every actor has made an album, or at least so it seems. Martin however has been somewhat out of the limelight for the last few years, making his musical career seem like less of a gimmick. More importantly he actually has the talent to pull it off. The songs are innovative but also infused with tradition, stepping out of the box without being overly obvious about it. A good example is on the opening track (also the title track), an instrumental in which Martin uses silence in a way that is uncommon in bluegrass but works well with the tune (addition by subtraction, if you will.) Another strong instrumental is “The Great Remember” in which Martin’s banjo is melodic, almost lyrical. While Bela Fleck has been known for banjo virtuosity in almost every style of music known to man, Martin manages to make it sound prettier than one could imagine.

Most of the tracks are vocal however and we are treated to quite the variety of singers. Leading off is none other than Sir Paul, although “Best Love” is a somewhat pedestrian vehicle for him. The close harmonies of the Dixie Chicks bring the heart song “You” to life. Martin’s own Steep Canyon Rangers turn in impressive vocal performances as well. The most technically demanding–and arguably most humorous–song on the record is “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs”, an a capella number with several smoothly executed modulations. The Rangers’ humor and skill are also evident on “Women Like to Slow Dance” and “Jubilation Day.” The record also features a live version of Martin’s classic hit “King Tut”, this time in a fully bluegrass rendition.

There is no dead weight on the record, although a few are relatively weak. “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back” and “Yellow Backed Fly” are both entertaining and cute but not particularly memorable. Nevertheless, it’s that all-too-uncommon record (a true “rare bird” if you will) that is enjoyable to listen to in its entirety; even the songs that don’t stand out work well enough to not skip. Not every story that your uncle spins is a masterpiece; occasionally Aunt Mildred’s roast might be a little dry. Their hospitality, however, is hard to beat and few people who spend an evening there regret it. There are far worse ways to spend 40 minutes or so than with this collection of songs from Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.


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Doc Watson: 10 great performances

Posted by dlockeretz on June 9, 2012

The music world recently lost yet another icon.   On May 29th,  Arthel Lane Watson, best known as Doc, died at age 89.

Blind since childhood, Watson was raised to be independent, and earned the money for his first guitar by chopping wood and selling it to the local tannery.  While he is best known for his folk, bluegrass and country music, his first big professional gig was on electric guitar, with a western swing band.  However, it was during the folk music revival of the 1960s that Watson’s career took off.  In the years since, many musical fads have come and gone, but Watson’s art remains timeless, always reaching new audiences.

Two of my favorite Doc performances are not present here, as I was unable to find them online (so if anyone knows where they might be hiding in cyberspace, please let me know.)  “F.F.V.”, a song about a train-wreck that was first played by the Carter Family as “Engine 143“, and “Dill Pickle Rag” (played here by Chet Atkins) were both heard on his 1966 record “Home Again.”  He also performs “Down in the Valley to Pray” and “Old Man Below” on this release.

Deep River Blues – probably Doc’s most famous finger-style number, played and studied by countless guitarists.

Down in the Valley to Pray – sometimes Doc’s singing is overlooked compared to his instrumental ability.  Here he gives a great a capella version of a Gospel classic.

In the Jailhouse Now – classic drinking/gambling/carousing song, with nice slide guitar and yodeling.

Little Sadie – a classic “murder” ballad.

Mama Don’t Allow No Music – a fun, uptempo song which gives each instrumentalist a chance to play the music that “mama don’t like.”  This live version features piano, electric bass and drums as well as banjo, mandolin and guitar.

Old Man Below – as a youngster, I remember finding the line about the “double-barreled gun” amusing.

Peach Pickin’ Time in Georgia – great rendition of a country classic, with nice flatpick solos – and more yodeling!

Tennessee Stud – besides murders, jail and train wrecks, Doc liked to sing about horses.

Wabash Cannonball – not all train songs are about crashes, such as this classic foot-stomper.

Way Downtown – apparently the characters in “In the Jailhouse Now” didn’t learn from the experience.

The ten songs picked here are no means a comprehensive list of Doc Watson’s best work, but for those not familiar with him, they make a nice introduction, and connoisseurs will undoubtedly enjoy the memories.  Thanks Doc for all the great music!

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CD review: Colonel Bruce Hampton & The Aquarium Rescue Unit, “Mirrors of Embarrassment”

Posted by dlockeretz on December 12, 2011

Sometimes rediscovering a record can be like getting a call from an old friend.  Such was the case with this album from an Atlanta group with an unlikely name: Colonel Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit.  “Mirrors of Embarrassment” was one of my favorites in the late ’90s, although over time, I gradually forgot about it.  But anyone who read my review of the Zombies’ “Odessey and Oracle” knows that I sometimes find some of my best material at thrift stores, and that’s what happened here.  Given the record’s relative obscurity and the fact that I don’t exactly remember how I lost my original copy of it (probably a casualty of a move), it’s not out of the question that the CD I found at the Salvation Army store might be the exact one I used to own.

There are a lot of good things about this record; chief among then being that while each individual member of the group – vocalist Hampton, guitarist Jimmy Herring, bassist Oteil Burbridge, mandolinist Matt Mundy and drummer Jeff “Apt. Q258” Sipe – is quite a talent on their own, they blend well together to make a cohesive group.  Similarly, they meld different styles that shouldn’t go together – funk, bluegrass, swing, blues, country, rock, spoken word – smoothly, without making it seem like a gimmick.  In fact, the Unit’s sound is a good argument against labeling musical styles.

On the opening track, “No Egos Underwater”, Hampton’s vocals, which straddle the fence between spoken word and singing, layer nicely over a funky groove based around a recurring blues riff.  Next is “Lost My Mule in Texas”, in which a country-styled vocal and mandolin riff go hand in hand with another funk groove.  Other strong tracks include the odd-timed “Lives of Longevity” and the uptempo “Dead Presidents“, both of which feature Herring and Mundy matching each other’s blazing riffs, a la the Allman Brothers.

Slower songs include the shuffling “Memory is Nothing but a Gimmick” and the ambient blues “Trondossa.”  The last song, “Payday”, is a medium-tempo shuffle, with a final bit of spoken word to close out the record.

This is not necessarily a CD for everyone’s tastes; don’t expect to have the songs stick in your head, at least not immediately.  But it’s well worth checking out, especially for fans of music a little off the beaten path.  If you’re tired of hearing the same stuff on the radio day after day, this one might just do the trick for you.

After this record, Hampton left the band, and with a revamped lineup–including Oteil Burbridge’s brother Kofi on keyboards and flute – they released “In A Perfect World.”  According to the band’s website, the original members got together in 2011 to perform at the reopening of the Georgia Theatre.

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