A great album and unbelievable performance at Telluride Blue Grass Fest
by Glenn Alexander
There Records 008
Peter Rowan could just as easily been a preacher. He’s got the whole
fire and brimstone attitude on stage, he’s got heaps of tales of
triumph, morality, and revelations, he has visions (of Elvis), and
he’s met the Creator (Bill Monroe, folks). He preaches from his pulpit
ceaselessly, and without fail manages to keep the faith, whether or
not his sermons are speaking to the masses. With this release of a
show from over 10 years ago, wherein six fellow devotees merge behind a
righteous cause (music), Peter Rowan and gang release the devil
and make a deal with righteousness.
With Telluride elder statesman Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas (who has to be
on the all-time list of performers most responsible for excessive
drooling and oggling), and the eminent upright bassist Victor Krauss
backing him up (with Larry Atamanuik and Kester Smith on skins), there
is certainly no shortage of talent here. Let’s just get this out in
the open. Hell or high water, these boys burn the shit out of these
tunes. Rowan hasn’t released anything this combustible since,
wellever. Yes, I am a fan of his music. I appreciate his history with
Bill Monroe, his Old and In The Way, his Bluegrass Boy, the
lyrical and melodic brilliance of Dust Bowl Children, and his
work with the boys of Two High String Band down in Texas and beyond.
I can even appreciate him at least taking a stab at mixing reggae and
country, which not even fellow weed-wielder Willie Nelson seems to be
able to do with any real success. Maybe someday the two idioms will
have a serendipitous moment in the studio, but I’m afraid we’re still
waiting. Live, on the other hand, Rowan has actually made his
Reggaebilly sound relevant, if not damn near revelatory at times.
Sometimes, when the meeting of minds coalesce into one thing on stage,
boundaries and labels seem to disappear into the air, if the air is
magic on that particular night or day. When he sticks with what he
does best, he’s a force of nature a dazzling, idiosyncratic shaman
of the lonesome sound. He can be an astute purist or a side-stepper
branching into new waters with varying effectiveness. Within his own
musical cosmos, he is the jack of all trades, the master of destiny.
At times, it takes good company to really shine. In Telluride,
Colorado in 1994 at a music festival in the mountains Peter Rowan and
his compadres proved not only masters of their world, but of the air
in which their sound traveled on that festival night.
The “Deal With The Devil” that opens up is a Charlie Daniels Band-like
romp that showcases Bush’s fiddle work, Rowan’s tireless and precise
finger picking talent, and those good ol’ rock-solid country drums,
just chugging along. It makes for a great opener, introducing us to the Rowan his fans know him best for:
country-tinged earnestness, wailing vocals, high-lonesome lyrics and
being thoroughly possessed by some unseen force. The Latin-tinged
“Panama Red” is the album’s jamming zenith. Every member shines on
this number, none more than Jerry Douglas, whose solo towards the end
rivals any acoustic solo for shear explosiveness and dexterity this
author has laid ears on in some time. Rowan yodels, hollers, takes an
earnest stab at his old Martin come solo time and Bush proves once
again why he is the mainstay that he is at the festival, dazzling the
crowd with rapid fire attacks and inflammatory inflections. After its
over, in the left speaker you hear Bush proclaim across the stage,
“That’s the way ya do it!”. Indeed it is.
“Rainmaker” is prefaced by a
rather amusing tale about a vision quest, wherein the author meets
Elvis standing on top of a building in a parking lot declaring that
Rowan is to write a rainmakin’ song, “no neo-shamanistic jingle'”, he
says. Duly noted. What follows is a sure-fire honky tonk take on this
Rowan classic that epitomizes ‘crucial country’. It’s country the way
that it too often is not played these days, with attitude and honesty,
and more importantly — with a seriously driving rhythm section. The
Marley-penned “No Woman No Cry” incites not only the crowd to sing the
chorus, but rouses the band into playing reggaebilly the way it was
supposed to be heard — a merging of styles into a seamless and unique
idiomatic experience. It’s light and airy like the original, with the
added pleasure of bluegrass instruments to add a little flavor.
Douglas crests and climbs with his slide work, gliding and moving the
song along beautifully.
Audibly, it sounds rich and layered. Everything thing is there, in
crisp detail. Good thing for us, because this one is a keeper. If
anyone has ever doubted Rowan’s position among the great performers of
acoustic music, then this release reaffirms once again why he played
with Bill Monroe and Jerry Garcia, and why he continues to perform
around the country. This is the one his fans have been waiting for.
Come and get it.