Tim O’Brien travels many roads on new CD
Reviews of recent CDs from the string music world, with plenty of input from Tim O’Brien and Jerry Douglas.Tim O’Brien, “Traveler”produced by O’Brien (Sugar Hill)Few musicians travel with their music as extensively and as successfully as Tim O’Brien. Wherever you put him, whatever he does, O’Brien makes it sound right and true. His projects range from Colorado-based Hot Rize, one of the premier bluegrass bands ever, to his acclaimed Irish music ensemble The Crossing, to ongoing duos with Darrell Scott and sister Mollie O’Brien. As a songwriter, he has had his songs done by the Dixie Chicks, Nickel Creek and Garth Brooks; as an interpreter, he did an entire album of Bob Dylan songs, the superb “Red on Red.” O’Brien sings like a dream, and plays mandolin, guitar, violin and bouzouki.”Traveler” spotlights most of O’Brien’s many sides, with emphasis on his songwriting. All but one of the songs was written or co-written by O’Brien, and are centered around the traveling theme. Within those parameters, O’Brien finds all kinds of corners to explore. “Kelly Joe’s Shoes” is a playful travelogue about an actual pair of shoes, given to O’Brien by musician Kelly Joe Phelps. “Restless Spirit Wandering,” “Less and Less,” “Travelers” and “Forty-Nine Keep on Talking” are likewise travel songs, telling the rules and ways of the road. Most ring with the tinge of weariness, but O’Brien, helped by Bla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Casey Driessen, Jon Randall Stewart, Dirk Powell, Jonell Mosser and Edgar Meyer, lights the way. Del McCoury Band, “It’s Just the Night”produced by Del & Ronnie McCoury (Sugar Hill)No one has done a better job of making contemporary bluegrass music, while sticking tightly to the bluegrass fundamentals, than the Del McCoury Band. The group retains the standard bluegrass instrumentation of guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and bass – all acoustic, of course. For the most part, it’s just Del and the boys – including Del’s sons, Ronnie on mandolin and Robbie on banjo – with a short guest list.The McCourys make their distinctive mark in choosing their material. “My Love Will Not Change” and Delbert McClinton’s “Same Kind of Crazy” are made bluegrass songs only by dint of the McCoury Band making them so. The chord progressions especially are removed from the bluegrass basics. The McCourys show a continuing deep fondness for Richard Thompson: like their last CD, 2001’s “Del & the Boys,” “It’s Just the Night” opens with a Thompson song, this time “Dry My Tears & Move On.” For good measure, they also cover Thompson’s “Two-Faced Love.” Gospel vocal group the Fairfield Four joins in on the title track, with Del’s voice hitting those chilling tones just right. The group gets even deeper into the gospel with a take on Don Reno’s “The Angels Singing.” And the members take turns showing off their individual picking skills on Ronnie McCoury’s lightning-fast, original instrumental “Hillcrest Drive.”With music like this, it’s little wonder that bluegrass is enjoying such popularity these days. And even less of a wonder why the Del McCoury Band is atop the bluegrass heap.Andrea Zonn, “Love Goes On”produced by Zonn (Compass)Andrea Zonn is best known to me as the violinist in Lyle Lovett’s Large Band. But on her solo debut, Zonn comes out swinging as singer, bandleader, producer and string wizard.”Love Goes On” is reminiscent of Alison Krauss’ excellent 1999 album “Forget About It.” It’s not bluegrass, but smart vocal pop music distinguished by gorgeous low-key singing and backing instrumentation largely from bluegrass instruments. On “Love Goes On,” the songs come from everywhere (except Zonn herself). There’s a cover of “Weather With You,” by Crowded House’s Neil & Tim Finn, and another Neil Finn tune, “Better Be Home Soon.” Marcus Harmon, who appears as a backup singer, also contributes two songs, including the gorgeous “Galilee Road.” A high point is the gospel-like “In My Own Backyard,” with Vince Gill adding harmony vocals. Other guests on the album include Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas, and Compass Records owner Alison Brown on banjo. I imagine we’ll be hearing more from Zonn. The Waifs, “Up All Night”(Compass)Australian trio the Waifs were an apparent hit at this summer’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival. On “Up All Night,” their fourth album, the group is easy to like, as they mix blues, folk and acoustic rock. It’s slicked up some: Singing sisters Vikki and Donna Simpson seem to know all the tricks; at times, “Up All Night” has eerie echoes of Joan Osborne’s “Relish.” But as Osborne did on that massively popular album, the Waifs tread the line between calculation and earthiness well.I’d love to hear the Waifs team with a producer who convinces them to take off some of the sheen. Matt Flinner Quartet, “Walking on the Moon”produced by the Matt Flinner Quartet (Compass)Mandolinist Matt Flinner strays into Flecktones territory here, taking a bluegrass instrument and putting it in the context of an electric combo that plays a style closer to funk, jazz and rock than bluegrass. The results are impressive. Flinner – with electric guitarist Gawain Matthews, bassist Sam Bevan and drummer Aaron Johnston, with Colin Bricker adding samples on two tracks – makes a lively instrumental sound. The opener “Men From Boise” lays down an enjoyable, up-tempo groove; “Walk the Plank” throws an Irish accent into the mix. For cover material, Flinner and Co. try the Police’s “Walking on the Moon” and a medley of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” and the Meters’ “Cissy Strut,” but the original tunes provide a far more satisfying framework.Yonder Mountain String Band & Benny Galloway, “Old Hands”produced by Sally Van Meter (Frog Pad Records)While Colorado’s Yonder Mountain String Band has ascended to near the top of the bluegrass world, the music has seemed to lag behind the popularity. “Old Hands” is easily the best album the quartet has released, and they had a lot of help in making it. The songs all come from Benny Galloway, a longtime Colorado picker who served as something of a mentor to Yonder Mountain in their earliest days. Galloway sings several of the songs, with each of the Yonder Mountain fellows picking two favorite Galloway tunes to sing. The guest pickers – Jerry Douglas, Tim O’Brien, Darol Anger, Sally Van Meter and more – provide most of the instrumental sparks. “Old Hands” is a fine record. Galloway’s songs are varied and distinctive; Van Meter’s production is bright; the playing is wonderful. But how much of this can be credited to Yonder Mountain is debatable.”Reflections, Vol. 1, Reflections from the Telluride Bluegrass Festival”produced by Steve Szymanski (Frog Pad Records)Colorado seems to be the leading edge of forward-looking bluegrass, thanks in no small measure to the broad-minded Telluride Bluegrass Festival. “Reflections, Vol. 1” collects 14 tracks recorded between 1990-99 at Telluride, and it’s just a small slice of a huge treasure chest. Much of it has only the slightest relation to bluegrass: The collection opens with James Taylor doing the traditional “Wild Mountain Thyme,” followed by Shawn Colvin covering Richard Thompson’s “Wall of Death”; it closes with John Hiatt doing his own “Lipstick Sunset.” But Telluride has always been about expanding the acoustic music realm, not working within tight definitions of bluegrass. Closer to bluegrass are tracks from Nickel Creek, the Del McCoury Band, the Johnson Mountain Boys, and a remarkable feat of four-hand banjo-picking from the duet of Bla Fleck & Tony Trischka. Among the surprises is Dan Fogelberg’s “Sutter’s Mill,” backed by a group featuring Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and Tim O’Brien.
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