Monday, October 20, 2014


Image635494275651225377Sometimes it takes getting out and going to a LIVE concert for me to remember just how powerful music can be…..  I had not heard the new HOT RIZE release, “When I’m Free” when I had the chance to see them here in Durango, CO. at Fort Lewis College on September 24th. As each new song was introduced on stage, the impact these new songs had on me was immediate! The level of songwriting, the depth of the lyrics and the freshness of the performance of these new tunes stood out like a neon sign in a one horse town!

In my review of their concert, I made the statement that “HOT RIZE is back”, and after listening to this CD for days on end now, they are indeed back, and they are better than ever.  The band, Nick Forster on electric bass, Pete Wernick on banjo, Bryan Sutton on acoustic lead guitar and Tim O’Brien on mandolin, guitar and fiddle, plays with a precise musicianship and focused intensity that has only grown stronger with time.

After hearing the recorded AND the live versions of these new songs, please believe me when I say that Hot Rize is again raising the bar and leading the way, and I’ll bet they are going to influence another generation of young bluegrass pickers as they re-fire their engines and take up where they left off in 1990. It’s also going to be very interesting to see what happens when it comes award season next fall. As I’m writing this, the IBMA Convention is over and Bryan Sutton was named Bluegrass Guitar Player of the Year for 2014, for the 7th time!!!

The CD was produced by Hot Rize and recorded at The Studio at eTown Hall, in Boulder, Colorado. It was engineered by Dave Sinko, who was assisted by James Tuttle.  The band and Mr. Sinko mixed the project. This CD is warm, intimate and very personal …… time has also increased the level of studio experience each man brought to the project. Listening on headphones is pure heaven for my old ears, with each breath and pick stroke being faithfully and expertly captured. Old, and new fans are going to love this recording, and I’ll bet there will be a whole lot of bluegrass musicians adding some of these songs to their repertoires!

Of the twelve songs here, eight are written by band members.  Of the other four, two are traditional/public domain, “A Cowboy’s Life,” and “Glory In The Meeting House,” and two are by such notables as Mark Knopfler, “I Never Met a One Like You,” and David Hidalgo and Louie Perez, of Los Lobos fame, who wrote “Burn It Down.”   It never occurred to me to ask, as I was interviewing them before the concert, if they recorded just these twelve songs, or had some extra’s “in the can” that weren’t used on this CD. I’m just a little slow on the up-take some days!

They related to me that it took a lot of pre-recording effort to decide just what new material they wanted to include on this first new album in 25 years, and that the new music was the main ingredient in putting Hot Rize back together. The logistics of clearing their individual calendars for certain lengths of time for the recording sessions and setting up their tour schedule for 2014 and ’15 must have been a hectic process, but, they all seemed pleased at the outcome of their efforts. 

“Western Skies,” written by Nick and Tim, is the first cut on the CD, and it has all the ingredients one would expect from Hot Rize, energy, hot solos, great harmony and a strong song with descriptive lyrics and a memorable melody. It also has something that I wasn’t expecting……..  Tim’s lead vocal exposes the age and maturity that his voice now possesses. His voice now has a gravelly texture to it that I had not heard before. It’s not a big change, it’s very subtle, but, it’s there, and it adds to that individual sound in his singing that makes him even more immediately recognizable. It’s even more prevalent on the album’s second song, “Blue Is Fallin,” which Tim wrote. 

“Blue Is Fallin” is one of the most interesting and personal songs presented here. It is also my favorite. In an interview, Merle Haggard once said that to write a great song, you have to go where it hurts. This song was either very easy for Tim to write, because his own hurt was lying so close under the surface of his skin, or he agonized for a long time over how much he really wanted to reveal about himself to the world. With a line like: “I’m afraid of myself, and I’m afraid for you,” this composition is dark, angry, and scary. OR….. Merle is wrong, and Tim is simply one of the most gifted song writers on Earth and should be in the same category as Hemmingway when it comes to making up a good story line. Either way, deeply personal or not, Tim channeled the lyrics and melody into a great song, and the arrangement is just as haunting and menacing as the words. I don’t know how to read a Crystal Ball, but, in my humble opinion, this tune could easily end up as a big time “Country” hit record if it’s re-cut by some superstar.

Another one of Tim’s solo writing expeditions is “You Were On My Mind This Morning,” and it’s every bit as deep and regret filled lyrically as his afore mentioned song. Tim has a way of taking these sad and remorseful lines and putting them to an upbeat rhythm that makes them easy to listen to and tap your toes to. On this particular album cut, Pete’s banjo and Tim’s mandolin work almost in unison to make a distinctive, catchy and jangly feel driven by Nick’s “up in the mix” bass and Bryan’s guitar work. Even after all the time apart from each other in the studio, they can still catch that magic groove and nail it down superbly! I like this one a lot, especially the song itself. Tim has written so many great songs, and both of these are right up there in the same category as “Walk the Way the Wind Blows” and “Untold Stories.” HITS!!!

Mr. Forster and Mr. Wernick put their heads together and came up with “Come Away,” and Mr. O’Brien sings it with a pleading eloquence. I love the melody they wrote, and the chord changes, especially from each verse into the chorus’, are dy-no-mite! The chorus is memorable and the story line reaches out and makes you want to listen for the outcome. Good song writing, a super performance and the harmonies are spot on. The only thing I’d change, from an outsider’s point of view, would have been to bring Mr. Sutton’s guitar solo up in the final mix and brighten it up some. It gets just a little lost among the other instruments.

One, of only two, instrumentals on the CD is Dr. Banjo’s “Sky Rider.” Pete Wernick is considered one of the best banjo player’s ever, and he teaches and passes on his knowledge and style of pickin’ at festivals and banjo “Camps” all over the globe, and this song explains and shows to the un-initiated just why! Pete’s banjo sizzles, and his rolls and runs are examples of the template that other banjo men try to emulate. His right hand has a dynamic to it that flows over the strings like a tornado and the fingers on his left hand seem to land on notes that only he knows how to find! Pete, to me, is the rhythmic frosting on the Hot Rize cake.

The rest of the band also steps up to the plate and plays every bit as well as Pete does on “Sky Rider.” Nick’s bass is like a metronome, always on the top side of the beat and pushing hard. Bryan plays with a fluidity that is filled with dexterity and speed.  I’ve seen him LIVE three times in the last year and he is the real deal. And I’ll mention it again, Bryan was named the 2014 Guitarist of the Year by the IBMA!

No one plays mandolin like Tim O’Brien…… maybe it’s because he is so adept at also playing fiddle, guitar and any other stringed instrument at hand, that he’s able to bring other fingerings, scales and methods into play to make up his own style. With all the genres of music he’s proved that he is able to adjust and fit into, I think he’s just learned to mold his own style into a wide ranging palette of sounds no one else can imitate. He also has one of the most rhythmic ways of strumming his mandolin I’ve ever heard. It’s like he plays inside the time and adds flourishes to that time arc that fit perfectly. I know this is an old, obsolete and dated word, but Tim just has a “funky” way of playing, and he does it better than any other mandolin player I’ve heard. As I’ve said before, Tim is the “magic” in Hot Rize.

The instant the band launched into “Doggone,” written and sung by Nick Forster, the audience at their live show was out of their seats and the dancing began! This is a fun song, and I’m glad to say that the recorded version of “Doggone” is just as alive, enjoyable and danceable as the live version was. I stated before that Nick is the “dynamo” in Hot Rize, and his personality filled vocal is the heart of this song. He has his own unique voice, and he knows how to wring the last drop of energy out of his singing. He also sings lead on ‘Burn It Down,” and he shows all his power and range in his performance. To record a song from another genre and make it work, you have to make your version noticeably different from the original. You have to OWN your interpretation of the song! I pulled up the Los Lobos version on YouTube, and I have to say that Nick and Hot Rize breathe excitement into it. What a difference tempo, instrumentation, energy and a change in time signature make. Pete’s banjo and Nick’s bass drive this tune, and it sounds like Tim is playing some nice old Wes Montgomery octave licks on his mandolin.  But, it sounds, again, like Bryan’s guitar is too soft in the mix….. I’ve listened on several different sets of speakers, and headphones, and it just gets lost in the total sound. Maybe it’s just my old ears…. or, the ears that mixed it may be a lot sharper than mine.

Bryan Sutton is the new blood that energizes and pushes Hot Rize toward another round of acclaim. His talents are huge, his demeanor friendly and warm, his experience vast and he is passionate about his music. Did I mention he also sings like a bird? He and Nick have written a gospel number supreme in “I Am the Road.” Accompanied only by his guitar, and some of Tim’s mandolin on the turn-arounds, Bryan proves his vocal mettle when he sings this song. With four part, old time harmonies, the song is an example of what bluegrass gospel is all about. Bryan’s voice is strong and laced with conviction, and it will only be a while before he takes a more active role in the personality that is Hot Rize. Just the right man for the job, if you ask me. As a side note, Bryan is featured in an article in the December issue of Vintage Guitar Magazine, and in it he talks about his three old Martin guitars. His 1942 Martin D-28 Herringbone, his 1940 Martin D-28 and my favorite (it was made the year I was born!), his former go-to guitar, a 1948 Martin D-28 with two black pick guards. Bryan is holding the ‘48 in the cover picture for his new CD, “Into My Own.”  As soon as possible, I plan on reviewing “Into My Own,” it’s a super recording, and if you get a chance to pick it up…… GET IT! Bryan also has an association with Dana Borgeois guitars, and on this tour he was playing a new signature model BS (Bryan Sutton) D-150 that sounded as good as it looked. Only 30 will be made, so by the time I can save up for one, they’ll probably all be gone! 

"I have every expectation that this CD will be in the running for Bluegrass Album of the year from both the Grammy Nominating Committee and the IBMA!  As exceptional as this project turned out to be, I can only hope there’s another one in the planning stage."

 W.J. Hallock, Prescription Bluegrass

Bryan shows his musical adaptability by playing bass during the “Trailblazers” LIVE set and  clawhammer banjo on the CD’s second instrumental, “Glory In The Meeting House.” Nick plays some fine mandolin in unison with Tim’s fiddle, Bryan holds the time in place with the rhythm of that clawhammer banjo and Pete throws in some Scruggs/Wernick style licks over the top of it all. No one plays bass, but the song moves so well it isn’t needed or missed.  This old timey feeling selection is one of the highlights of the CD.  I love it, and the deeper you dig into this band, the more diversity, range and color rises to the top.

I’ve always been a fan of Mark Knopfler, the rocker from across the pond, but, I had no idea he was as good a bluegrass songwriter as his song here proves! “I Never Met a One Like You,” is a kick to listen to, because the boys take a great song and make it rock in a 2/4 bluegrass way. This song should definitely be considered for single release by the folks at TEN IN HAND RECORDS and the marketing division of THIRTY TIGERS. The same could be said for the final song on the CD, “Clary Mae,” which was written by the late Harley Allen and Tim O’Brien. Both these songs are solid radio material.

As exceptional as this project turned out to be, I can only hope there’s another one in the planning stage. As enthusiastic as the audience reaction in Durango was to the band being back together and to the new songs they debuted, plus the fact that they are hitting all the best festivals and concert halls on their 2014 and ’15 tour schedule, a #2 CD could end up a reality. At least I hope so! So far, they’ve performed at the 2014 IBMA Convention in Raleigh, NC and the Hardly, Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco on this year’s inaugural tour, and those two events alone have the whole bluegrass community watching and paying attention. With their stellar reputation, Hot Rize will have more work than they may want! But, what a way to make a return to touring and recording! I have every expectation that this CD will be in the running for Bluegrass Album of the year from both the Grammy Nominating Committee and the IBMA! Yep….. “When I’m Free” is a must have addition to your collection.

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