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Published: 2003/01/23
by Chip Schramm

Steam Powered Aereo-Takes – John Hartford

Rounder Records 82161-0480-2
Cleaning the garage is not always the most rewarding
of endeavors. Maybe that’s why so many so called "car
ports" turn into junk rooms and black holes,
attracting and absorbing all kinds of clutter in many
homes. But if it were not for a long-needed garage
inventory project, the outtakes from John Hartford’s
celebrated Steam Powered Aereo-Plain sessions would
have never seen the light of day, much less been
released as their own unique album. But fortunately
for bluegrass fans, the tracks that were discovered
and packaged for general musical consumption are every
bit as entertaining and interesting as the original
finished product.
The original Aereo-Plain band generally consisted of
Hartford on guitar, banjo, and vocals; Norman Blake on
some guitar and mandolin; Tut Taylor dobro; and Vassar
Clements on fiddle. Randy Scruggs plays on several
places on these outtakes, contributing some electric
bass when the need presents itself. The strength of
Hartford’s writing and vocals is complemented by the
freewheeling nature of the instrumental jams that his
comrades laid down during the original recording back
in early 1971.
Even though David Bromberg’s name appears prominently
in the production credits, he was given instructions
to simply roll the tapes and let the band create
spontaneously in the studio. The organic
characteristics of the music is apparent on these
outtakes, even though only a handful of the actual
songs on Steam Powered Aereo-Takes ended up as
tracks on the original album release. Short,
whimsical Hartford songs like "Strange Old Man"
and "Emanuel Cant" are balanced evenly by more
technically complex instrumentals like Tut Taylor’s
"Oasis" and the ironically titled gem "Bad
Music (Is Better Than No Music At All".
Some of the songs on the album are interpretations of
traditional bluegrass songs like "Dig A Hole" and
"Where The Old Red River Flows", which features
some high-country yodeling on the opening track.
There are also some songs included that appeared on
other Hartford albums other than Aereo-Plain, most
notably the title track from Morning Bugle and
"Howard Hughes Blues". The latter was the B-side
of an unreleased single that wasn’t actually part of
these recording sessions, but included as an added
Overall, Steam Powered Aereo-Takes will delight
diehard bluegrass fans but also contains enough
breadth to appeal to all followers of American folk
and rock music. There are some notable White
Album-era Beatles influences on parts of the album,
especially on songs like "Presbyterian Guitar"
and "Lady Jane". This is an album worth seeking
out and studying. One listen is not enough.

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