Saturday, October 2, 2010

Peter Rowan and Tony Rice - Quartet

Rating: B+

It's tough to evaluate a bluegrass album. Many of the normal criteria I use when evaluating albums seem to be moot. Songwriting? Many bluegrass songs are not original tunes but handed down from the Appalachian folk tradition. Instrumental skill? Pretty much any bluegrass recording is going to have it in spades. Strong singing? Ditto. Inventiveness? Here's where it gets tricky. Certainly there are the Infamous Stringdusters and Tim O'Briens of the greater bluegrass world, but what about the artists operating in the realm of "traditional bluegrass?" Is it fair to judge them by the same standards as folks who are trying to push the envelope?

It's not fair to make Peter Rowan and Tony Rice sound like they're just paint-by-numbers guys; far from it. Rowan has spent a career collaborating with genre-breakers like David Grisman and Jerry Garcia and bringing a folk singer-songwriter sensibility to the bluegrass world. That songwriting skill is on display here ... kind of. Nearly half the album was written by Rowan (or, in the case of the now-classic "Walls of Time," co-written with bluegrass founder / giant Bill Monroe), but only album closer "Perfection" is new; the rest are like half a greatest hits package played with a new band. Rice, meanwhile, is arguably the most accomplished flatpicker in the bluegrass idiom. He's brought influence from jazz, folk, and blues to his guitar style and worked with luminaries like Grisman, Garcia, J.D. Crowe, and Alison Krauss. The quartet is rounded out by mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist and bass player Bryn Davies, who also provide backing vocals.

So what do we have here? Well, it's mostly very good. Rice gets to show off his six-string wizardry on traditional tune "Shady Grove" and Rowan's jamgrass classic "Midnight Moonlight." Rowan's seasoned, warbly tenor is terrific on "The Walls of Time" and especially on a really eerie version of "Cold Rain and Snow" - I didn't think this song could be done better than Del McCoury does it, but Rowan's version in my opinion tops even Del's. The harmony singing from Gilchrist and Davies is terrific on Townes Van Zandt tune "To Live Is To Fly" and "Let the Harvest Go To Seed." It's not all highlights; Rowan's singing is overwrought on opener "Dust Bowl Children," "Trespasses" is just slow and meandering, and sole new tune "Perfection" is just OK. And I'll ding them a bit for a lack of adventurousness. All in all, however, this is a strong effort; two giants of the genre who have earned the right to do whatever they want making a fine, solid album that doesn't break any new ground.

Buy it from Amazon:
Tony Rice Official Site
Peter Rowan Official Site

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