Three CD Reviews from 2004

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Kenny & Amanda Smith Band - House Down the Block

Rebel records

Kenny and Amanda Smith first met at a Lonesome River Band concert in 1985 when Kenny was playing guitar with that band. Since then, they have gone on to create a partnership that garnered the IBMA (International Bluegrass Musicians Association) 2003 Emerging Artist of the Year award for their musical efforts. As far back as the early 1990's Kenny Smith's reputation put him up with the first rung of elite bluegrass guitar players. Luthier Randy Lucas used Kenny's 1937 D-18 as the model for his Kenny Smith signature model dreadnought. As the proud owner of one of these instruments I can attest to its excellence.

House Down the Block represents Kenny and Amanda Smith's second album. Steve Huber on banjo, Ron Inscore on mandolin, and Greg Martin on bass, join Kenny and Amanda on guitar to form a unit that is both tight and euphonious. Amanda handles most of the lead vocals. Her alto voice has more midrange power than many female vocalists. Tinged with a slight southern lilt, her direct but rhythmic phrasing gives the band's songs drive and momentum. Steve Huber's banjo and Ron Inscore's mandolin solos show they are quite capable of keeping up with Kenny Smith's guitar pyrotechnics. The band's version of "Big Ball In Boston" showcases their ability to play with both lightening speed and creative innovation.

Three original songs by Kenny Smith join material from Dee Shelton (I Know Where Love Lives,) Alan Bartram (Without a Trace,) Bobby Harrison (It's not the Wind,) Tim Stafford (All She Ever Wants,) Mike Evans (I've Traveled down this Lonesome Road Before,) Becky Butler (Why Don't Yo Just Say Goodbye,) Tommy Duncan (Stay A Little Longer,) and Buck Owens (House Down The Block.) I especially like Kenny's instrumental "Song for Emily;" it has a lyrical grace that belies its technical difficulty.

The Kenny and Amanda Smith band fills the musical space halfway between the male bonding of Del McCoury's band and the singularity of bluegrass Diva Rhonda Vincent.  They prove that you can have an egalitarian bluegrass band with a female lead that has both rhythmic drive and stellar musicianship.

 

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Darol Anger and the America Fiddle Ensemble - Republic of Stings

Compass Records

Many virtuosos find it difficult to make music that entertains both their listeners and themselves. Darol Anger admirably accomplishes this daunting task on his latest Compass Records release Republic of Strings. Instead of creating left-brained musical esoterica that leaves listeners groping for direction, Anger weaves a tapestry that takes traditional tunes to places that are new yet still accessible.

Given Anger's background with groups such as the David Grisman Quintet, Turtle Island Quartet, and The New Grange, his affinity for genre bending should come as no surprise. Still, putting Stevie Wonder's "Highest Ground" on the same disk as Bill Monroe's "Old Dangerfield" seems like  a big cultural gap to bridge. In less accomplished hands they would clash like oil and water, but here they work together because Anger sees their similarities rather than their differences. The Stevie Wonder song has a pulsing drive that only bowed instruments could provide, while Anger's arrangement brings out slinky the Hendrix-like side of the Monroe tune.

Assisting Anger in his quest of discovery are Scott Nygaard on guitars, Brittany Haas on 5-string fiddle, Rushad Eggleston and Natalie Haas on cello, Todd and Sickafoose on string bass. Guest vocalists Laurie Lewis and Sara Watkins add a welcome break to this otherwise all-instrumental album. Laurie Lewis' vocals on the Joni Mitchell song "Help Me" display her consummate mastery of both phrasing and articulation. Joni, eat your heart out.

Republic of Strings is the perfect disk to put on during a party, not because it will make people dance, but because it will make people think. Its unique combination of new with familiar seduces the listener into paying attention. On second thought, playing this disc at a party might be a bad idea; after all you don't want everyone just standing around listening, do you?

 

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Jerry Garcia & David Grisman - Been All Around This World

Acoustic Disc

Jerry Garcia and David Grisman played together on and off for well over forty years. Some of that playing time was spent in David Grisman's studio. Luckily, during some of these last occasions David had his tape recorders running. The results can be heard on Acoustic Disc's new release Been All Around This World.

This disc includes twelve songs drawn from traditional, roots, country western, folk, and even R&B sources. Some tunes, such as "Been All Around This World," and "I'm Troubled," come from Garcia and Grisman's early string band repertoire, while others including "I Ain't Never, " and "Dark As A Dungeon," draw on early country influences. Perhaps the most surprising song selections are the reggae tune "Sitting Here In Limbo" and James Brown's "I'll Go Crazy." These demonstrate the remarkable scope of G&G's musical interests. Even these last two, somewhat oddball, musical selections become perfect string band fare once they have been filtered through the musical consciousness of these two consummate musicians.

David Grisman on mandolin, mandola, plus tenor and baritone vocals, and Jerry Garcia on lead vocals and acoustic guitar are joined by veteran sidemen Joe Craven on percussion and fiddle, Jim Kerwin on bass, Matt Eakle on flute, George Marsh on drums, and Sally van Meter on dobro. Despite the added musical firepower the disc still feels primarily like a duo album rather than an ensemble effort. The backing musicians remain in the shadows, adding to the overall sound, but never detracting from the gray-bearded frontmen.

The sound has the usual down-home suavity I've come to expect from Acoustic Disc. I know of no label that consistently produces more albums that sound so acoustically right. I'm convinced that Dawg Studios should be declared a sonic shrine.

Naturally Deadheads and Dawg fans will snap up this disc with acquisitive fervor, but even less rabid acoustic music connoisseurs should at least give this disc a serious listen. It's not often we have the chance to hear contemporary master musicians play with each other for no reason other than the pure joy of it.

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