Take A Stand – Ethan Wiley
With most jam bands owing at least a small debt to bluegrass, it’s natural
that many fans in theimprov-rock scene are checking out the genre, from
David Grisman’s collaborations with Jerry Garcia to so-called "jam-grass"
outfits like String Cheese Incident and the Gordon Stone Band, both of which
have converted many from the Phish audience. And while Ethan Wiley’s latest
all-instrumental release, "Take A Stand", is not nearly as accessible to the
bluegrass novice as,
say, SCI, Stone, or Phish’s myriad bluegrass tunes, it might
be worth your time and effort to delve into this more traditional sounding
In the liner notes, Wiley writes that most people’s first question is: what
the hell is a mandocello? I admit it was my first question, too, when I read
the word next to his name in the credits. Thankfully, Wiley explains that a
mandolin is tuned like a violin, a mandola like a viola and a mandocello
like a cello. Simple enough. With that out of the way, let’s get to the
I’m admittedly one of the bluegrass novices mentioned above, so I tried
to approach this album with open ears and an open mind. Wiley’s strong
songwriting and the talents of his bandmates Jon Sholle (guitar, something
called a "papoose guitar", dobro, banjo), Jim Whitney (bass), Joyce Anderson
(violin) and Joe Craven (percussion) shine through, regardless of your
knowledge or appreciation for newgrass music.
The fourth track, Out of Here, is a mellow pastoral ballad, blanketed
by Wiley and Sholle’s smooth plucking and aptly buoyed by Whitney and
Craven. The next tune is Shinglehouse Road, the closest thing to
old-school bluegrass tunes in the set, complete with soaring fiddles, the
jazzy plink-plunk of Whitney’s upright bass and a Grisman-esque mandolin
solo from Wiley.
The sixth piece, Idle Time, is pretty and slow, befitting its title.
It’s also one of the first chances for us to hear Wiley showcase his chops
on that unique instrument of his, the mandocello. After the first verse he
takes a beautiful, haunting mandocello solo that’s tough to put into words.
Upon first listen, the instrument struck me as having the melancholy
mid-range wail of a cello, the
twang of an acoustic guitar but an attack gentler than a mandolin,
particularly lacking the mandolin’s penchant for banjo-like staccato.
My immediate favorite tune on this album was Turtle’s Nap. In the
bluegrass tradition, the melody is passed from player to player, with Wiley
first taking a mandolin lead, then Anderson copping it on the violin, before
Wiley steals it back, this time trilling on the mandolin before passing it
to his own mandola. While the lead figure on this ballad is repeated
throughout, it seems to carry more weight each time it’s played because of
its lyrical beauty. It’s one of those lines that doesn’t need words: it
already speaks volumes without them. Remember, one of the most beloved
qualities of Garcia’s guitar playing was its lyrical nature, the way every
note rang clear and seemed to be saying something, and something important.
You’d be kidding
yourself if you said he didn’t pick that up from his early bluegrass banjo
The second-to-last track, Kitten’s Smitten, has a main guitar riff
that bears more than a passing resemblance to Black Muddy River. The
song sounds more like a folk ballad than a bluegrass piece, and when Wiley
takes a mandolin solo, you can’t help but think of an expressive Garcia
acoustic solo, maybe something you might be lucky enough to hear in
Palace. Make no mistake, I’m not calling Wiley a rip-off artist. The
comparison to a great and expressive player like Garcia is a compliment in
the highest regard.
The 14th and final song, The Unfortunate Mule Incident features a
neat Spanish-style mandolin run and picks up steam at the end thanks to an
almost-rockin’ repeated guitar riff. The song never reaches the fevered
pitch it hints at, and that’s a shame, but it whets the appetite for what
this song, and maybe the band as a whole, can do in the live setting. It’s a
fitting way to end
This album, while admittedly not for everyone, manages to keep both feet
planted in the modern bluegrass idiom while flailing its arms into the
realms of folk, rock, country, blues and Latin (see Hualtuco and
parts of Incident). It’s admirable that Wiley and company are able to
explore those elements without completely shifting gears. Give this record a
try. After a few listens, you’ll stop comparing it to what you’re familiar
with and begin to
enjoy it on its own
merits for what it is: a fine, playful, risky piece of acoustic music.