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Published: 2007/01/21
by Glenn Alexander

Quartet – Peter Rowan and Tony Rice

Rounder Records

Quartet finds the endlessly captivating Peter Rowan doing what he’s done many times reshaping old songs into fresh forms. With Tony Rice at his side, this refashioning project is decidedly inventive. Rice — like no other acoustic guitarist working today — can create fluidity and dexterity out of the most rigid of musical forms, and no form is more taut than bluegrass. In other words, Tony Rice transcends bluegrass in to something more than just quick break and fast G runs. Quartet finds Rowan and company often taking a left-turn down a well-worn road. With Bryn Davies (formerly of the post-John Kahn incarnation of Old and in the Way, as well as the Two High String Band) holding things down on the low-end brilliantly (as always) and mandolin firehouse Sharon Gilchrist, Quartet is an exceptionally executed album of acoustic music.

Consisting of Rowan originals, a few covers and traditional numbers, Quartet is a well-rounded affair. “Dust Bowl Children” (from Rowan’s 1990 release of the same name) finds the song grooving in a way the original never did. It’s got a swagger and a hint of the blues, with notes that just beg for a release — which the band delivers with great timing. Rice is spectacular — hitting his signature rolls and trills with staggering agility. The late, great Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live Is to Fly” is done with class, with a lilting grace furnished by great harmony vocals and an inspired mandolin solo from Gilchrist. The well-played “Shady Grove.” a song popularized by Garcia and Grisman back in the ’90s, is designed for a trip that the band doesn’t quite make, but is made up for with the unflinching playfulness found on Rowan’s “Midnight Moonlight,” perhaps Rowan’s most enduring song. The vocals, from Davies and Gilchrist, along with solos from everyone (including Rowan) provide a fullness this song hasn’t seen in years. Gilchrist employs her rather brilliant instrumental chops here with real originality, while Rice takes no prisoners (and in turn helps move the song past the seven-minute mark with ease). The vocal-centric and beautifully simple “Guardian Angels” is sweet and solemn in all the right ways, with a chorus that shows why Rowan has one of the most delicate and affirming voices in traditional music.

One thing Quartet does rather well is steady itself firmly in balance with all the performers. With just the four of them, they manage to take the listener to a number of places — some well worn, some new and re-invented. In some circles, bluegrass music is turning into a means to explore new intonations and harmonies in much the same way jazz was designed to do, and Tony Rice is a perfect man for this job. Quartet proves that these four musicians have a firm grasp of bluegrass’s roots as well as its endless boundaries. No one is better equipped to take hold of that task than Peter Rowan and Tony Rice, who are both steeped in tradition. You can’t rewrite the book unless you’ve read it. These two came prepared.

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