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Published: 2007/09/28
by Mark Burnell

Sam Bush: On The Road

Sugar Hill

This two-hour DVD presents, in its entirety, a 2006 show from the Sierra Nevada Brewery and serves as both an excellent document of typical a Sam Bush live show and a decent overview of the man’s career, showcasing his skills on numerous instruments playing multiple musical styles. In much the same way that Bela Fleck has explored many genres in his career since both were in Newgrass Revival, Bush effortlessly tackles jazz, bluegrass, and many spaces in between, ably supported by a crack touring band that’s relatively new but sounds as if they’ve been playing together for years. This is a very tight unit, and everyone gets a chance to shine.

The opening “Mahavishnu Mountain Boys” sets the pattern for the looser, jazzier numbers: Bush plays a tune, the band lays down a groove behind him, everyone solos, and then Bush gets a chance to finish with a flourish. It may sound a little too formulaic, but with Bush switching from fiddle to mandolin to electric mandolin and back again from song to song, there’s plenty of variety. Byron House and Chris Brown form a killer rhythm section, Scott West has some terrific moments on his banjo, especially when he rips it up on “Ridin’ the Bluegrass Train,” and guitarist Stephen Mougin is a great foil for Bush, as the two often go toe-to-toe trading licks. Moreover, Mougin really holds everything down when Bush goes way out there with his soloing.

My favorites are the bluegrass numbers, but barring the slightly dull reggae of “Spirit is the Journey,” the whole DVD is pretty darned good. Bush is a very impressive mandolin player (at one point he reels off an amazing solo on slide mandolin, which I can’t recall ever seeing anyone do before), but his fiddle work is especially scintillating. He also has a good voice, capable of carrying a fine range of tunes, from the country-tinged “River’s Gonna Run” to the choogling but melancholy “Ballad for a Soldier.” Per usual, his best vocals are on his traditional solo encore cover of Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country”.

Other highlights include a breakneck fast version of the old bluegrass chestnut “Bringing in the Georgia Mail,” a cover of Jean Luc Ponty’s “New Country,” where Bush’s fiddle playing is simply sublime, and a pair of John Hartford covers (“On the Road” and “Back in the Goodle Days”) that show not only just how brilliant a songwriter Hartford was, but also how sorely he is missed, and how much Bush reveres the man. “Goodle Days” especially has a sweet poignancy about it that’s just amazing. All in all, this is a most satisfying release from a very talented musician.

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