Three Great CDs and One DVD from 2003

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Tony Rice - The Bluegrass Guitar Collection

Rounder Records 

Tony Rice and the words "bluegrass guitar" are rarely, if ever, separated. Along with Doc Watson, Dan Crary, and Clarence White, Tony Rice has had more influence on modern flatpicking than anyone else. This new anthology from Rounder shows the breadth and scope of Tony's remarkable technique and musicality.

Joined by a veritable who's who of bluegrass greats including Darol Anger, Bobby Hicks, Rickie Simpkins, Richard Greene, Vassar Clements, Stuart Duncan and Sam Bush on fiddle, David Grisman, Larry Rice, Doyle Lawson, Norman Blake, Sam Bush, John Reischman, and Jimmy Gaudreau on mandolin, Todd Phillips, Mark Schatz, and Ronnie Simpkins on bass, J. D. Crowe on banjo, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Doc Watson, Wyatt Rice, and Norman Blake on guitar, this all instrumental album covers material from fourteen different albums. Although the sound quality varies from acceptable to excellent the musicianship remains stellar throughout. Rice's groups show that even on overexposed material such as "Blackberry Blossom" or "Bill Cheatham" great musicians have something fresh and new to say.

Much has been written about Tony Rice's main axe, a 1935 Martin D-28 whose previous owner was none other than Clarence White. The CD's cover features a close-up of the bullet hole in its top. Tony acquired the guitar in 1975, and has played it almost continuously ever since. He does not pamper it. The day after playing on Rockygrass's rainy outdoor stage in Lyons, Colorado, I watched him spread cigarette ash on its top to absorb some of the moisture it picked up during his waterlogged set. I've played his guitar. The action is so low that only Tony can produce buzz free sound from its electric-like set-up. In the hands of mere mortals it sounds just like another poorly set up old guitar instead of the flattop holy grail.

The label "must have album" is often bandied about, but in the case of Tony Rice The Bluegrass Guitar Collection it is anything but hyperbole. Every aficionado of flatpicked bluegrass-style guitar needs to have this disc in their collection.


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Dan Reeder - Dan Reeder

Oh Boy Records

The word unique has been so vastly overused in our age of hype that most manglers of the English language feel obligated to add most or very in front of it. Unique is one of those digital words like pregnant. You either are or aren't - on or off, yes or no. Most people and things labeled "very unique" are merely slightly different, not truly unique at all. Then there is Dan Reeder. He is unique, not extremely unique or semi-unique, but simply unique. He makes all his own instruments, writes his own material, records himself in his home studio, and creates music that reflects his own singular view of the world.

One word that will never be attached to Dan Reeder is polished. His songs and performances, just like his homemade instruments, have as many rough edges as a woodworker who never uses sandpaper. Many of the cuts have background noise and hum as well as some tenuous tunings. While not truly low-fi, the recording quality here is certainly far less than current state of the art. The songs themselves are also crude. Some of them, such as "Work Song"" consist of just the lyrics I've got all the f****** work I need" over and over again. Others like "These Are A Few of My Favorite Things" displays a dark view of the world that borders on ultramarine.  But despite his generally curmudgeonly outlook, the songs are fresh, funny, and infectious. The "Work Song" gets a lot of airtime bouncing around in my cranium.

The graphics on Dan Reeder also deserve some attention. The pictures have a primitive power that echoes his music. Images of a coffee cup in mid spill, a tube emitting noxious fumes, and a portrait of Dan holding his hand over a lit flame echo the primordial directness of his songs. The liner notes also sport photos of his instruments. After seeing Dan's handiwork you'll never think a Dan Electro or EKO guitar is primitive again. His instruments have a certain infantile flavor reminiscent of a six-year-old's first pictures of mom and dad. His DeNAr FLEX amplifier marks a true nadir of industrial design.

Need a musical colonic? Give Dan Reeder a listen. I guarantee you will not waste the word "unique" on undeserving wannabees again.


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Asleep At The Wheel - Live at Billy Bob's Texas

DVD & CD

Smith Music Group

Asleep at the Wheel has carved out a niche almost as big as Texas playing western swing.  Begun in 1969, Asleep at the Wheel has stayed true to leader Ray Benson's vision of what country music should sound like. Based on a style pioneered by Bob Wills "the Elvis Presley of western swing" Asleep at the Wheel features tight ensemble playing, hot solos, and polished arrangements.

Asleep at The Wheel's latest release showcases the band in their native environment, playing live in a Texas venue. It's available both as a CD or DVD, so if you don't want to use your eyes you can opt for the CD. But for the full live effect, I strongly recommend the DVD. Unlike many live-performance DVD's, this disc has excellent production values, including fine editing, good camera angles, excellent sharpness, sumptuous color saturation, and lively cinematic pacing. In short, this is easily the best live concert DVD I've seen. Produced and edited by Michael Drumm along with executive producers Rick Smith and Billy Minick, this is one of  many DVD's in the Live at Billy Bob's Texas series. Other artists captured live onstage include Roy Clark, Gary Stewart, and Merle Haggard.

Since its inception Asleep at the Wheel has had 90 different musicians in the band.  The current roster includes Ray Benson on guitar and lead vocals, David Miller on bass and vocals, Jason Roberts on fiddle, electric guitar, and vocals, Hayden Vitera on fiddle and vocals, David Danger on drums, John Michael Whitby on piano and vocals, Jim Murphy on steel guitar and saxophone, and Cindy Cashdollar on steel guitar. While singling out individuals in this precision musical unit is similar to picking the best tasting color for M&Ms, the twin fiddle work of Roberts and Vitera can't help but make a strong impression. Haydn Vitera also does a sterling vocal job on the Vivan Keith and Ben Peters song "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" which was originally a big hit for Freddy Fender.

Along with the sixteen songs, the DVD includes two nifty special features; an interview with Ray Benson, and a photo gallery of still images. Unlike many concert DVDs which offer only stereo or Dolby derived surround mixes, Live at Billy Bob's Texas includes Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 discrete surround mixes in addition to a 2-channel Dolby Digital soundttack. I prefer the DTS audio because of its added bass energy, but the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix also sounds great. Recording engineers Paul Whitehead and Bob Wright deserve a lot of credit for capturing Asleep at the Wheel's vibrant live sound.

If you are an Asleep at the Wheel fan Live at Billy Bob's Texas is simply a must have. Even if you have only a moderate interest in western swing Live at Billy Bobs can turn you into a hardcore fan. 

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