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Published: 2006/06/22
by Matt Brockett

Laps In Seven – Sam Bush

Sugar Hill Records 4013

Laps In Seven, the latest from mandolin legend Sam Bush, is a perfect snapshot of bluegrass and newgrass music past and present. The newgrass pioneer brings his mandolin, fiddle, acoustic guitar, and strong vocals as always, and is backed by a talented core of musicians. One of the album’s several guests, Emmylou Harris, brings her trademark voice to an intense duet with Sam on "The River’s Gonna Run," the album’s opening track. The hard driving traditional bluegrass of "Bringing In The Georgia Mail" gives a crash course in the roots before the newgrass explorations of "The Dolphin Dance." Sam penned the original instrumental while watching Florida dolphins dance in the Gulf, and it sounds fairly reminiscent of the work of his old bandmate, Bela Fleck.

You can't have bluegrass without tunes about life on the rocks, and that's where "On The Road" and "Ridin' That Bluegrass Train" come in. John Hartford chose the odd 5/4 time signature for "On The Road" in an attempt to simulate the hectic pace of touring life, and the swirling sounds of this modern version definitely delivers the intended effect. Tim O'Brien adds his sweet vocal harmonies to "Bluegrass Train," a fast paced ode to the bluegrass and newgrass life told through train and horseracing metaphors.

Sam is frequently called upon to play for all sorts of studio sessions, and two such gigs introduced him to unique tunes that he deemed perfect for his own band, Robbie Fulks' "Where There's A Road" and Darrell Scott's "River Take Me," both of which appear on Laps In Seven. Little Feat’s Shaun Murphy adds her soulful vocal power to "I Wanna Do Right," a song written in tribute to the victims of Hurricane Katrina "with hope that folks can get back to their jobs and homes, like it used to be" according to the liner notes.

At the 2005 Telluride Bluegrass Festival legendary violinist Jean Luc Ponty joined Sam and the band onstage for a run through "New Country" in an experience Sam describes as "a dream come true." Ponty enjoyed the group's interpretation of his song so much he contributed his virtuostic talents to the studio recording as well, resulting in one of the album's most essential tracks.

The lyrics of Leon Russell's powerful Vietnam-era "Ballad For A Soldier," are sadly appropriate decades later, and Sam's strong warm voice sounds like an elder imparting some great wisdom on his flock, reminding that "We haven't really won, till all the fighting's done." On "White Bird," Andrea Zonn adds the perfect vocal accompaniment to Sam, as well as her dream-like violin and viola playing, giving the tune a sometimes islandy, sometimes middle eastern feel that even dabbles in Jefferson Airplane style psychedelia for a moment or two.

In what appears to be a new trend among Sugar Hill recording artists (see last month's review on Casey Driessen's 3D) Sam enlists the musical talents of his dog, Ozzie, for the album closing "Laps In Seven." One day Ozzie was drinking out of his waterbowl when Sam realized the dog was lapping in a syncopated 7/4 time signature. Sam made up a riff to go with it, and later finished the melodies with his bandmates, resulting in a highly impressive tune. When the music fades out at the end, leaving just the sound of Ozzie’s real "laps in seven," it’s a rare and amazing opportunity to hear exactly where the song began before Sam and the boys built it into something so much more.

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