CD Reviews from 2003 for 7/20/12

AR-kelly.jpgReckless Kelly - Under the Table & Above the Sun

How many times have you heard "These guys kick ass" only to discover just another bunch of prissy wanna-be poseurs. Reckless Kelly really do kick ass, without a single nipple-ring among them (not that I wold know or care either way).

Unlike most "kick-ass " bands, Reckless Kelly's number one fan isn't a twenty-something walking beer-receptical, but the Texas near-legend singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen, who's an industry veteran with an impeccable bullshit detector. His thoughts about the band can be found in the liner notes.

From the opening bars of "Let's Just Fall" through the final coda of "May Peace Find You Tonight" infectious hooks, down-home riffs, and un-clich├ęd lyrics will pummel you into grateful submission. Reckless Kelly combines equal parts of traditional country and roots rockabilly sensibility with a certain post-modern metallic edge that reminds me of electric Steve Earle on steroids.

Under the Table & Above the Sun, produced by studio pro Ray Kennedy, represents Reckless Kelly's first major label release, but it is their second CD. Brothers Willie and Cody Braun,  play guitar, fiddle, mandolin, high string guitar, and banjo as well as lead and backup vocals. Jay Nazz on drums and percussion, David Abeyta on lead guitar, Jimmy McFeeley on bass, and Steve Fishell on dobro and pedal steel guitar complete the band's roster. Willie Braun, writing with several songwriting partners, is responsible for every song on the CD. Not a dud among 'em. My personal fave, "Willamina," is an anthem to farming country gone modern and mean with the help of certain illegal substances. Equally strong, but a radically different acoustic ditty, is the traveling tale "Set Me Free." This tune celebrates free will and features bluegrass harmonies and down-home fiddle and dobro solos.

Great recordings are not only about capturing good performances, but also about blending the parts into a complete sonic whole. The musical textures in Under the Table & Above the Sun remind me of Rocky Road ice cream, full of nuts and other crunchy pieces that counterbalance the smooth stuff. Ray Kennedy delivers a rustically enhanced high-fidelity recording, delicately treading the fine line between the twin pitfalls of squeaky cleanliness and muddy grunge. Sound good? You bet.

Without a single pretty boy in the band, your chances of seeing Reckless Kelly's latest video (if they even have one) in heavy rotation on TCN are just about nil. Like most things in our modern world truly deserving of our attention, their music must be sought out since it ain't gonna' be pushed down your throat by the pop/pap culture machine. Like a whiff of fresh asphalt after an afternoon wasted in a half-deserted shopping mall, Reckless Kelly will clear your musical palette with the taste of something real. 

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Merlefest Live - The 15th Anniversary Jam CD and The 15th Anniversary Jam DVD

Doc Watson. If you aren't familiar with him you can't consider yourself any kind of expert on American music. He's simply the most influential acoustic guitarist this side of the Fertile Crescent. Blind at birth, self-taught on guitar, Athel Watson gained his surname Doc because of his ability to fix or doctor almost any object back to life. Or not - another story has it that his name was a last minute suggestion from the audience at a live radio show when the host deemed the moniker Athel un-pronouncable for radio someone yelled "just call him 'Doc.'" His only son, Merle, also a superb guitarist, was killed in a tractor accident in 1985. As a memorial, his friends put together the first Merlefest concert in 1988. Since then Merlefest has grown into on of the premier music festivals in the country. The 15th Anniversary Jam CD brings Merlefest to those of us not fortunate enough to attend in person.

Featuring Doc Watson, joined by a veritable who's who of roots musicians, the CD's nineteen cuts span the breadth of great American music. Sam Bush, Chris Thile, Earl Scruggs, Peter Rowan, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, Sean Watkins, Pete Wernick, Byron House, Alison Krauss, Sara Watkins, Patty Loveless, Albert Lee, and John Jorgenson all contribute to the musical stew. Large jams combined with small intimate groupings gives The 15th Anniversary Jam  musical variety and spice. Song choices vary from old rock and roll standards such as "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Tutti Frutti" through jazz classics such as "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Summertime" to traditional fare including "Shady Grove," "Careless Love," and "Amazing Grace."

Executive producers Jim Barrow and B. Townes roped together a top-flight production staff, including Bill Blankenship, Michael Sheehan, Claire Armbuster and Naomi Newman. Audio post-production involved five different engineers in five different studios. The final mastering took place at Airshow Mastering in Boulder, CO, where David Glasser had the daunting task of giving the whole mix a final polish. The finished results rival the best you'll hear on any live concert CD. The recordings preserve the sense of "liveness" along with excellent clarity and natural ambience.

The companion DVD has eight additional selections, and a 5.1 surround sound mix in addition to the two-channel tracks. The surround sound mastering, done by Zapp Labs, nearly makes up for the abominable video quality. The picture is soft, grainy, and only slightly above what you'd expect from a hastily-assembled TV special. The picture is difficult to enjoy on anything larger than a 36" direct view monitor. The performances deserve better. Still, Alison Brown group's "Mambo Banjo," and longtime Watson duo partner Jack Lawrence's solo on "Leaving London" make the DVD a winner in spite of its substandard image.

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David Grisman - Life of Sorrow

Bluegrass music was what originally brought David Grisman to the mandolin. Neighbor Ralph Rinzler, folk historian and mandolin player in the Greenbriar Boys, introduced this musically impressionable young man to the wonders of unique American art forms. After flirting with rock and roll, acoustic jazz, and even Klezmer, David Grisman's latest release, Life of Sorrow, reaffirms his first love -bluegrass.

Spanning from 1969 through 2000, Life of Sorrow illuminates how easily David Grisman can meld with other musicians and sound as if he's been playing with them for years. Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys, Del McCoury and his boys, The Nashville Bluegrass Band,  John Hartford, Ralph Rinzler, John Nagy, Mac Wiseman, Herb Pedersen, and Bryan Bowers all join Grisman for new renditions of old classic tunes. The title cut "A Life of Sorrow,' recorded in 1987 pairs Grisman with the Nashville Bluegrass Band. Although not known as a singer, David Grisman even adds his vocals to several tunes, even venturing a lead on "We Can't Be Darlings Anymore" and "Seven Year Blues." His impeccable mandolin work is peppered throughout the disc.

Over the years Acoustic Disc has developed a reputation for producing CDs with outstanding audio quality. Life of Sorrow lives up to the label's high standards. Even the earliest recording "Pretty Saro," made in 1969, sounds clean and natural. Sure you can hear the primitive reverb, tape flutter on the guitar, and overzealous EQ settings, but the music still comes through relatively unscathed. Later recordings, like "Unwanted Love," featuring David with Del McCoury and his Boys, recorded in "97,  sound simply superb.

Along with great sound Acoustic Disc consistently produces CD with generous liner notes and beautiful graphics. The eighteen page booklet that accompanies the Life of Sorrow CD includes David's introduction, a brief history of each tune, lyrics, complete personnel lists for each selection, and numerous photos of each song's creators and original popularizers.

To truly grasp David Grisman's musical greatness you must hear him play in a studio environment where he can't wow you with his considerable on-stage showmanship. Life of Sorrow represents a sterling opportunity to hear him creating music with his peers for the sheer joy of it. Thank you David G. for another fine, musically satisfying release.

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