Tuesday, October 14, 2014

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

Image635489079294975735I've been around a lot of fiddle players in my time. Hundreds of jams, bands and listenings. I've heard my share of fiddle players.

I've “had” to sit through numerous fiddle contests featuring a category for virtually every age group and then some. Junior, Junior Junior, Teen, Adult, Senior, Senior Senior and Open. It's a great way to burn up a 3 day festival.

Having been exposed to this phenomenon, sometimes awe inspiring, sometimes excruciating, I have never heard or seen a fiddle player work a violin so hard as Michael Cleveland.

Yes, this is a good thing. If you've seen a live performance you know exactly what I am referring to. The quality of tone, precision, drive and innovation he pulls out of that delicate little instrument, and oh those chops, puts Michael in a class of his own.

I was first amazed by Michael in the mid 90's when he performed with the IBMA Kids All-Star Band along side the likes of Chris Thile, Cody Kilby and Josh Williams. I was next amazed when I saw Michael perform as part of Rhonda Vincent's band. “Cool” I thought to myself, “this kid is getting some recognition.” Soon after that “Flamekeeper” was born, and having gone through a few personnel changes as all bands do, the current configuration manages to take the stage as one of the most sought after acts in the Bluegrass world.

Bingo! Michael's band Flamekeeper consists of Glenn Gibson ( banjo), Tyler Griffith ( bass), Joshua Richards (guitar) and Nathan Livers ( mandolin). This is a high end band that hits on all 8 and are four-time IBMA Instrumental Band of the Year Award winners.

On Down The Line has the feel of a band that loves the music they play just as much as their fans. The choice of cuts on this release covers a wider than usual spectrum. There's Benny Martin's “Me and My Fiddle” in which Michael plays an eight, yes eight, string fiddle to virtual perfection and you'd swear that the ghost of Benny Martin showed up in the studio to reprise his version of just how this song should be sung.

The next eye opener is the fact that Flamekeeper recorded and included on this CD a rendition of “Orange Blossom Special.” Think about it. This fiddle anthem hasn’t been recorded by a serious A list bluegrass band since the 70's. OBS is the fiddle's equivalent to the banjo's Foggy Mountain Breakdown and has been avoided like the plague in the bluegrass studio. But you know as well as I do that it had to be done. How could Michael , at some point in his career, not record this tune? The result is mind bending. Proof of the confidence that this band has in their ability to put their unique stamp on even the most common of tunes.

Listen for “Jack O' Diamonds.” When performed live the Flamekeepers walk off stage and leave Michael alone in his own world of overtones, drones, pizzicato and drive.

Also included in the generous 14 cuts are original instrumentals and ballads including the “The Sunny Side of Town” which can be found hovering around on most bluegrass music play-list charts.

There's not much more a bluegrass fiddle is capable of than what you will hear on this CD, and it is presented with discretion, style and precision. He is after all an 11 time winner of the IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year Award. Hearing Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper makes you want to own their recordings. Hearing their recordings makes you want to go hear them perform live. A pleasant cycle. Everybody wins.

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