Saturday, September 27, 2014

CD Review - Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper - ON DOWN THE LINE

Image635474073247562079Michael Cleveland is a nine time winner of the International Bluegrass Music Assn. (IBMA) Fiddle Player of the Year Award, and he’s up for it AGAIN in 2014! Listen to his newest CD, “ON DOWN THE LINE,” and you’ll know why in an instant!

A lot of fancy words get bandied around to describe his playing, all true, I must say, but…. in my humble opinion, what Michael has, in ample supply, is plain old simple FEEL! Feel can change with the tempo, the time signature, the genre of the song and a thousand other intangible aspects. For an instrumentalist to format his playing to enhance a good SONG, and all of a good song’s many elements, and to show that specific song off as beautifully as it needs and deserves to be, THAT is a musician being true to who he is. Cleveland puts his soul and passion into making the song the star. Let’s face it, the listener doesn’t always remember the person singing or playing the song, but…. they always remember the song, and the song is the final winner of every popularity contest. From what I’ve heard of Michael Cleveland, his FEEL is his strongest asset. There is simply no weakness in his playing, just turn him loose on anything, and he will make it shine, knowing exactly what to play, or, more importantly, what not to play. Michael can be the best friend a good song ever had.

Another noticeable asset of Michael’s is his willingness to share the spotlight, and let his sidekicks take off and soar! And soar they do! This band sparkles with talent, and every one of them is a star in their own right. Joshua Richards has one of the best voices in bluegrass, his power and range are exceptional. He is also one super guitarist and song writer. Glenn Gibson’s banjo playing rings like a bell, chiming just what bluegrass banjo is supposed to sound like, and he doubles on dobro with the same intensity and strength. His dobro playing on the Feller and Hill debut CD was spot on, as it is here! Nathan Livers, on tenor vocals and mandolin, does a great job of matching Michael lick for lick all through this CD. I became a fan of Nathan’s when he was a member of Storefront Congregation and wrote (with his wife, Steffani) two originals for their “Kaleidoscope” recording. He sang lead on one of these tunes and also on a Shawn Camp tune. Tyler Griffith also shares vocal duties, along with his bass playing. H e’s like a metronome, playing with powerful timing and syncopation. What a band!!

Not only has Michael put together one of the best bluegrass units out there, but when it came time to record this disc, he chose none other than Jeff White to Co-Produce the project. Jeff is Vince Gill’s go to harmony man. He played with Allison Krauss and is one of Nashville’s unsung sidemen. He also tours with the Chieftains, and from personal experience seeing him perform live with this World renowned Irish treasure chest of musicianship, Jeff has no equal instrumentally and vocally. He also has the years of production experience necessary to bring out the best in those he chooses to go into the studio with. This CD was recorded in the upstairs studio at Compass Records in Nashville, the same studio that was once, years ago, home to the Glaser Brother’s music factory. For those who don’t remember the Glaser’s, just think of the original OUTLAWS album with Willie, Waylon, Jessie Colter and Tompall Glaser. The Glaser’s publishing business also included the young, and just being discovered songs of cutting edge writer’s like John Hartford. The walls there are soaked with the musical history of Nashville, and the music of Michael Cleveland just adds to this hallowed building’s luster. One of the best CD’s of the last year, “Dear Sister,” by Claire Lynch, was also recorded in this studio.

In picking the material to record, Michael and Jeff were very discerning, he starts out with “Too Late For Goodbyes,” by Julian Lennon….. yeah, that Julian Lennon! Josh Richards contributed “Johnny Thompson,” and the gospel tinged “Over On The Other Side,” a co-write with Todd Alan Rakestraw. My pick for the song what will garner the most airplay has to be Mark, “Brink” Brinkman’s “Fiddlin’ Joe.” Catchy, exciting, fun, lively and memorable all are labels this song carries. It’s a HIT!!

About a year ago I had the pleasure of meeting Aubrey Holt and his son, band leader and lead vocalist, Tony Holt, at a festival in Shawnee, OK. Two nicer and more talented men you won’t find in bluegrass circles. Both brought songs to this project, and the two you will find here are goodies! Tony wrote the walking bass, swing feeling “Just Call Me Crazy”. Aubrey’s contribution was “When The Warden Turns The Key,” Both are first class. Glenn Gibson’s dobro on Aubrey’s prison saga is eerily haunting and perfect for the somber lyrics. Good song choices on Michael’s part, and Jeff’s studio expertise show’s off all the chosen song’s assets.

This might be a good time to mention recording engineers Justin Francis and John Caldwell. It’s obvious that Jeff and Michael wanted the absolute best when it came to recording techniques, and that goal was attained in spades! The quality of the recording process on this CD is exceptional, and maybe that’s why the band sounds so alive and spontaneous….. they didn’t have to worry about the tech side at all. All they had to concentrate on was nailing the pickin’!!

With a nine time fiddle champion at the wheel, this could have been an instrumental heavy CD, but, I don’t think Michael works that way. There are only three instrumentals presented here, but…… they cook! The first one to rise in the order is #4, “Come Along Jody,” by Benjamin F. “Tex” Logan, and it’s a dooooozie! Nathan kicks it off on mandolin, Michael jumps in with him and the whole first minute of the song is just the two of them setting the pace. The rest of the band jumps in on the off beat at the minute mark and things get very interesting fast! Josh follows the hook melody line faithfully on his guitar solo and his fingering is accentuated beautifully. I’ve heard so many recordings where the acoustic lead guitar is just not hot enough in the final mix, it can get buried by the sheer intensity and sound of the other instruments and there can be volume problems that sometimes need addressing. Jeff and Justin made sure Josh was heard, and his guitar’s tone, along with his pickin’ style, were right up front. Glenn’s banjo solo was next, and it’s no wonder he’s thought of so highly by other banjo men. He sets the bar very high on this song! Nathan came back in on mandolin, and Michael plays a harmony line above him to really show off just how tight and close this band can play together. Nathan and Michael have speed and dexterity to spare and Tyler pushed the limits of playing on top of the beat to make this song a musical delight….. every one shines on this one!

The next instrumental up, in the #8 slot, is a show piece that should leave no doubt as to the depth of Michael Cleveland’s abilities. “Jack O’ Diamonds” is done solo by Michael….. and he single handedly turns it into a masterpiece. All of his strengths, and FEEL, as a musician are presented, with no distractions, and in my mind, this is the absolute high point of the CD. To me, his reputation jumped about a mile higher after listening to his rendition of this old classic. Stunning is the only word I can think of to label his performance.

I don’t mean to spoil the party, but, the third instrumental, and the last and 14th song you’ll hear, is Michael’s version of “The Orange Blossom Special,” by Ervin T. Rouse. There are hundreds of great songs in the world, but, this is the one song that should NOT have been included here. It is exceptionally well done, just as good as all the others recorded, and for live shows, it may be a crowd pleaser and a wonderful encore number that the whole world knows and expects to hear. BUT….. that’s precisely the reason to not include it here. This entire album is marvelous in that all the songs are either not well known, or are fresh from the song writer’s pen. New and original, songs written by band members or a treasure from the past that hasn’t been done to death, make for an interesting and unexpected ride for the consumer. Song selection should always be priority #1, but, adding this one was a mistake, even Michael Cleveland can’t bring something new to this one and give it new life.

“That Ol’ Train,” by Alan Rhody and Ronnie Scaife, “She Ain’t Sayin’,” by Aaron Bibelhouser and “The Garden Wall,” by Alan Rhody, Brian Good and Bruce Good are three more songs that add significant value to the success of this CD. Excellent songs, great production and players committed to doing their level best to record a hit filled disc are evident with the inclusion of these songs. Every one will entertain you and capture your imagination.

Another exceptional song is “Me And My Fiddle,” by Benny E. Martin. Glenn Gibson sings lead on this one, and his personality filled vocals show him to be a triple threat musician……. playing great banjo and dobro and singing with a voice that is as distinct as his musicianship! This is another hit song hidden in amongst the other good tunes here. Michael plays eight string fiddle to add some spicy flavor to this one, and it’s another one of my favorites! I hope this song is pushed as the Flamekeeper's next single.

I was listening to this CD while I was in the middle of moving from Oklahoma back to Colorado, so I spent a lot of time with this music. Different car and truck stereos, different moods, various states of mind and being just plain tired most of the time. But, I kept putting “On Down The Line” back into the dashboard, just to listen to one more time. There is a drive and an energy to this CD that a lot of other artists only wish they had captured! I’m glad I had it with me…. This recording is a keeper, filled with music that you will play it over and over, so…. get your copy, just in case you’re planning a trip driving East and/or West on Interstate 40. Budget it’s cost as “necessary provisions!”

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