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Published: 2004/10/30
by Karl Kukta

You Were There For Me – Peter Rowan and Tony Rice

Rounder Records 11661-0441-2

The first full-fledged collaboration between Zen troubadour Peter Rowan and newgrass guitar pioneer Tony Rice comes in the twilight of the artists' careers — after their discographies have been canonized, their musical evolutions pared down into tidy narrative form, their songs embraced and re-interpreted by a new generation of searching musicians. Rowan and Rice have nothing left to prove. The mere fact of their collaboration has been met (as doubtless the two foresaw) with cheers, applause, uncritical congratulations and praise: this is how solid their reputation is.

Perhaps that is why You Were There for Me feels so self-assured and comfortable with its own limitations. Rowan has yet to lose ground as a songwriter, and his voice is surprisingly strong, but he rarely lets loose on the ten tracks herein. Instead, he focuses on tender ballads, wistful remembrances, and an occasional political narrative, with arrangements that provide Rice the space to enhance the mood with his tasteful leads. On the title track and "Come Back to Old Santa Fe," Rowan’s lyrics and Rice’s commanding guitar compliment each other magnificently, weaving together a Southwestern tapestry of sounds whose tranquility seems to express the fondness of yearning for its own sake — for the pleasure we get from the process of desiring rather than that which we ultimately receive (or don’t) from the object of desire.

The two are supported on the album by non-intrusive combinations of mandolin, bass and drums, emphasizing the true "duo" nature of this project. In truth, though, this is a Rowan album on which Rice plays a major part; Rice's work here is stellar, imaginative and elegant, but all within the confines of Rowan's material. His contributions are entirely shaped by the model that Rowan gives him; it is a tribute to Rice's talent that, given these restrictions, he is still able to give such a personal and eclectic performance, and to Rowan's songwriting gifts that his songs nonetheless justify their own structures.

What You Were There for Me lacks entirely, though, is a spirit of anarchy, something which Rowan and Rice have both given us (and in different forms) in their earlier work. The only hint of this we get is on "Tin Roof Shack," where we briefly meet up with wildman Rowan, belting out lonesome lines that echo with wisdom, abandon and lunacy. Most listeners won’t mind this absence, since what the duo does give us is top-notch acoustic music, but I for one wish that they would have forgotten their status as elder-statesmen of Americana for a little while and tried to surprise each other.

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