"In The Barn" – Smokin’ Grass
Recorded and mixed by Pete Carini in Trey Anastasio's barn studio, "In the
Barn" begins to realize the promise of a band whose superfluous talent
pool is augmented by the blistering bow of newly added nineteen-year-old
wunderkind Patrick Ross on fiddle. While the songwriting is occasionally
uneven, the composition and musicianship are consistently stellar as the
band swings, churns, dances, trills, and whispers through well-chosen
standards, original songs, and standout instrumentals. Their sophomore
effort represents a giant leap forward for this progressive bluegrass sextet
The album darts out of the gates with banjo great Don Reno's Country Boy
Rock & Roll which features guitarist Doug Perkins on lead vocals and
of the album's finest harmonies. Though Doug's grin-inducing falsetto sadly
never returns, the track announces the band's presence with authority. The
lines dance through and around each other as each player fades into the
background and steps forward again, mimicking the single-mic dance of
traditional bluegrass. Adam Frehm's dobro slides in to lead the solo parade
with Beau Stapleton's mandolin close on its heels. Ross steps through after
another chorus, swaggering through the best of the solos and holding the
door for Perkins' battered Martin. The rhythm section of Mike Santosusso
and Eric D. Hamell on bass and drums respectively manages to push the pulse
without stepping on the acoustic instruments, which still ring through with
alarming clarity. The production, which balances four acoustic instruments
with electric bass and drums, never wavers, filling the spectrum with
blended lines and distinct bursts.
The album's many instrumentals are all beautifully rendered. The talent in
this band is such that they could string together heart-wrenching solos on a
herd of standards – as they do on the traditional Cattle in the Cane – and
call it a day. But their greatest strength lies in their musical
composition. Each instrumental fashions a complete journey of itself.
Syracuse Stop, which may come closest to a signature sound, winds
through the countryside, rollicking over a series of crests and depressions
— sparking fresh cartoonish reveries with each listening. Frehm's
California Waltz, with it's warm theme richly stated on the dobro,
processes with a hesitating beauty that breathes deep at intervals to gather
itself for another twirl across the floor. Perkins' album closing
seems quicker than its slippery namesake as everyone chimes in with their
cookinest, nastiest, wickedest licks on this barnburner. While these cuts
are riddled with impressive solos, their strength is in the tenacious grasp
of the melodies themselves, lingering for days in the recesses of your mind
and jumping out unexpectedly to stretch a grin across your cheeks or paint a
moving picture across your mind.
Santosusso is the most willing song-writer, contributing three of the four
original vocal tunes.
While the Tow Truck Song stretches the band's range with its classic
overtones, it eschews the inventive medley of reworded Yes, Jimi, and Doors
songs that highlights the live versions. The rhythm section is at its most
aggressive here, and Perkins gets to play with his effects pedal, which
draws out a distinct and original electrified sound. Still, despite some
dizzying Charlie Daniels-esque riffs from Ross and Mike's word play, this
seems misplaced, interrupting the flow of the album rather than fleshing it
Big Question drifts over airy dobro tones in a frustrated search for
answers before abandoning the cause and settling for blissful ignorance.
The measure by measure solo-swapping between verses is fun, and Santosusso's
expressive bass work adds surprising depth and texture. Still, the
fantastic, twinned, Allman-esque lines of Ross's fiddle, Perkins' effected
acoustic and Frehm's dobro in the outro deserve further exploration. The
best of the three is Arizona, the protracted tale of a
glaucoma-stricken truck driver who finds relief in a particularly pungent
prescription from a kind doctor in Arizona. Santosusso's unforced, easy
delivery perfectly suits this witty confessional that feels like lazy
storytelling between friends.
Of the other vocal tunes, Beau Stapleton's faithful rendition of Bob Dylan's
Mixed Up Confusion features the album's most irresistible harmonies.
Especially fine here Perkins' who winds one solo down with a tease of the
traditional Old Joe Clark. Frehm’s Open Road drips with sappy
sentimentality, and the airy, high-pitched delivery is not helped by the
oddly spectral background vocals, all of which surprisingly does not prevent
this sugary hook from catching an aggravating hold on your internal radio.
"In the Barn" exceeds their debut, "Take Yer Pick" in every way.
The addition of Ross brings both a brilliant soloist and a new palate of
colors to the mix. While the vocal tunes do not measure up to the
instrumentals, this says more about the excellence of the latter than the
short comings of the former. Twenty years down the road, the vocal tunes
may be humorous but inconsequential ditties expertly rendered, but these
instrumentals will still ring timeless and true.