Monday, June 10, 2013

Prescription Bluegrass Reviews: Newton and Thomas - REBORN

Image635064465790062206I’ve been on a roll lately….. every CD I’ve picked up to review has been exceptionally good. At this rate I’m going to forget how to be nosy, constructively critical and nit-picky! Sometimes, when I’m listening to a new CD, I dig a little too deep into the who, what, where, when and why, and then I have to keep diggin’ even deeper to satisfy my curiosity.

I can’t seem to stop listening “just one more time!” The only problem with that is time just seems to slip away from me, and I can’t keep myself on schedule.

So, for this review, I grabbed a new CD “blindly” off the pile, thinking that may just be the way to break this hot streak of great new music. Well, that didn’t work! The new CD from Mark Newton and Steve Thomas, “REBORN,” jumped out of the speakers with a bang, and there I was again…. listening “just one more time!”

The first single off “Reborn” is by Kenny Boudreau, Darryl Landry and Ryan Roberts, and is called “OLD McDONALD SOLD THE FARM.” Yeah…. the very same song we all grew up singin’, but this one is full of lyrical hilarity and musical excursions way off the original melody. Sung by Steve, with Mark doing the harmony vocal, it has Steve playing mandolin and fiddle, Mark on rhythm guitar, Matt Wallace on upright bass and Scott Vestal on banjo. The song has topped the charts already and Pinecastle Records has also released a great video of the boys “out on the farm.” Not only are these guys top notch players and singers, but their ease and comfort in front of the camera is a treat to watch. We’ve included it at the end of this review

Steve, Mark and Matt are the core band throughout this entire CD, and Steve covers all the fiddle, mandolin and lead guitar tracks. The only guests they brought in were Scott on banjo and Ricky Skaggs on claw hammer banjo. Steve and Mark produced, recorded and engineered this whole project at Steve’s GAINTRAIN STUDIO in Gallatin, TN. To get the full affect of just how deep this production is, you have to listen on headphones to catch every little nuance. Steve plays so many different tracks on each instrument, on each song, that it’s hard to keep up! You’ll be Image635064452139001410hearing a mandolin from the left, then from the right, three or four, or more, fiddle parts filling out the songs, and more technology than you would think is possible to use. Or….. the boys will do a song with just the simplest of instrumentation. They really do seem to try and take the basic song into consideration before they start “fiddling’” with it! They seem very cognizant that “less is best,” on several of the songs, but, then they sometimes adhere to “MORE is BETTER!” They are very adventurous to say the least, and I find their studio knowledge and musical courage to be their finest assets.

In researching this review I was amazed at the credentials behind both gentlemen. Mark Newton won the 2001 IBMA Recorded Event of the Year Award for “Follow Me Back To The Fold,” A Tribute to Women in Bluegrass. In 2007, he was nominated for the IBMA Album Of The Year Award for his collaboration with Carl Jackson, “Hillbilly Hemingway,” and he has played with The Tony Rice Unit, The Seldom Scene, The Virginia Squires,( Rickie and Ronnie Simpkins and Sammy Shelor)and recorded an album with Larry Stephenson called “Live At Mr. B’s.” Quite a bio, and with this new CD, he further enhances his career highlights.

Of the twelve songs recorded on “Reborn,” Mark and Steve each sing six. Two of Mark‘s are, “The Key,” which has the powerful and lovely hook line “When the devil locks the door, God hands me the key,” and “Painted Lady,” which was written by Willis Alan Ramsey. Both will make you want to dance, and the trio really makes the songs bounce. The only problem is that after repeated listening they meld together and sound and feel too much alike. Mark does a wonderful rendition of the old Buffy Saint Marie song “Pineywood Hills,” and it should have been placed between Mark’s first two songs for a more diverse song sequence. Buffy’s song is absolutely done to perfection. Mark kicks it off with just his voice and rhythm guitar and the arrangement is kept simple. Steve plays a very sweet fiddle solo, and then follows up with some lead guitar fills and a tad bit of mandolin mixed into the rhythm track that really set off the strength of the song and Mark’s voice. Their harmonies are also right on the money. Matt’s bass is the backbone, simple but strong. Mark’s voice has some very individual characteristics that make him sound like no one else. That’s a plus in my book! It’s on this song that I noticed something odd…… Mark’s guitar, at times, sounds like it needs a fret job. Sometimes a guitar will have a high, or low, fret and when you play it just right, it chinks instead of ringing the note true. I could be wrong, or hallucinating, but, that’s just what my ears are telling me I’m hearing. It’s a very minute problem, but, I can hear it on other songs also. It certainly doesn’t take away from the aura and beauty of the recording, and I usually have to listen to this great song two or three times in a row!

“Country Song,” by T.P. Water has Mark digging right into the vocal and letting loose, and Scott Vestal’s banjo driving it along. Following that is the old traditional song “The Girl I Left In Sunny Tennessee,” and it’s one of my favorites. Ricky Skaggs is playing claw-hammer banjo on it and his solo and Steve’s guitar solo will capture any true acoustic instrument lover’s fancy. Mark sings this one with an earthy, natural delivery that makes it a joy to listen to. You’ll be singing along to it, I guarantee! Mark nails the old Dallas Frazier hit “If It Ain’t Love (Lets Leave It Alone,)” and it could be the best song Mark sings on this CD. His voice is a natural fit with the country flavor of this one. This song has been recorded by a number of the big stars in Nashville, including Connie Smith. Her version back in the early 70’s was a monster hit, but Mark makes this song his own, and Steve stretching out on lead guitar and fiddle on this cut leaves no doubt as to how good this CD is! Mark did a great job picking some very good songs.

Steve Thomas…. I don’t even know where to start! He was a founding member of The Lonesome River Band with Tim Austin, played with Del McCoury, Lost and Found, Jim and Jesse, The Osborne’s, The Whites… and that’s not even including all the country acts he recorded and toured with! I first became a devout fan after listening to the work he did with Feller and Hill and the Bluegrass Buckaroos. My Gawd…. this man has chops, ears and more talent than it’s possible for just one man to have! Wait ’til you hear his version of the old Bill Monroe classic, “Kentucky Waltz.” He starts off with just twin fiddles and a simple arrangement, but, then his history of playing with the Roanoke Youth Symphony pushes the solo into an orchestral, heavenly wonder land. He must have recorded a dozen fiddle tracks to get that sound, and I’ll bet Big Mon would love it. I know I do! Steve sings this one alone, and the vocal is every bit as dead on as the musical instrumentation. What a great version of this beautiful song!

Steve also shows his talents on a fretted dobro guitar with the old Delmore Brothers song,Image635064454612922910 “Blue Railroad train.” Mark’s harmony line is on the money and Matt’s bass kicks this one right on down the track! That old Jimmie Rogers country blues feel is alive and well on this choice.

The only original song on this CD is Steve’s “Far Far Cry,” and it makes me wonder if there is anything in the music world that Steve can’t do….. it has great lyrics, with a witty story line, and a melody that sticks in your head for hours. Steve’s vocal is full of personality and humor, AND the musicianship is superb. This should be a single release, in my humble opinion. Radio will eat this song up! Steve plays mandolin and lead guitar and Scott Vestal again adds plenty of drive on banjo. I don’t think I’ve mentioned how strong Mark’s rhythm guitar playing is, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t say he really shines on this one. Being consistent, rhythmically filling the holes and holding the time all together with the bass player is one of the most important positions in any band. Without a drummer, it’s even more important. Matt Wallace hasn’t been mentioned much either, but this young man is one fine bass player. He never overplays, but when the song calls for muscle, inflection and “push,” he innately seems to know it and spices things up. Mark and Matt lay down a very firm base for the lead instruments to dance on.

“Are You Missing Me” is one of those Louvin Brothers gems that will forever be perfect duet material, and Mark and Steve sing those beautiful harmony lines with ease. This entire CD is filled with vocals that are just super, and this one could be the best. I love the way they sing together, and it’s good regardless of who is singing lead or harmony. Even with all the instrumental hot licks, the vocals are still the strongest asset to this CD.

Song selection is a big part of the sound they make together, they aren’t afraid to tackle anything and they do it all with a natural, “easy as pie” attitude. Sometimes the simplest songs are the hardest to interpret and convey real emotion on. As good as they are as a duo, I can hardly wait to hear what they record next.

Steve and Mark couldn’t have found a better tune to end this dynamite CD with than the old traditional “Nobody’s Business.” What a kick ass, knock it out of the ball park song to leave their listeners with, Scott Vestal’s banjo, Steve’s mandolin, fiddle and lead vocal, Mark’s harmony vocal and rhythm guitar and Matt’s bass cruising’ in overdrive. Newton and Thomas have made a fun, exciting, thoughtful, technically advanced but down home recording that couldn’t have been done better. This is good stuff, folks, and it’ll be interesting to see how many awards it ends up winning. Yep… need to get your copy of this, and be prepared to be thoroughly entertained.

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