Alison Brown,
Fair Weather
(Compass, 2000)

That an album is issued on the independent Compass Records label is alone enough of a recommendation for fans of acoustic music. In only a few years, Alison Brown and Garry West have made Compass not only a contender, but the top-of-the-line label when it comes to adventurous string music, a hybrid of jazz, bluegrass, world and classical that remains delightfully indefinable. Fair Weather, however, belongs solidly in the newgrass camp, and it's a perfect example of that kind of music that's both lightning fast and laidback at once.

Brown is joined by some of the major names in contemporary bluegrass here: Sam Bush, Tim O'Brien, Matt Flinner and Mike Marshall on mandolins, Stuart Duncan and Darol Anger on fiddles, Tony Rice, Vince Gill, David Grier and Marshall on guitars, Todd Phillips, Missy Raines and Gene Libbea on basses, and Jerry Douglas on dobro. Bela Fleck puts in a banjo guest appearance, and vocalists Claire Lynch and Garth Fundis round out the roster. After reading the list, those who know bluegrass will get themselves a copy without reading further.

And they'd be justified. The music is great, from the blazing hot opener, "Late on Arrival," to "Sweet Thing," the banjo solo that wraps things up. There are a lot of highlights in between. The title track is a Vince Gill showcase, proving that he can still play mighty fine lead guitar as well as sing magnificently. The prime draw of "Poe's Pickin' Party" is the double mandolin sound of Bush and Marshall. Elvis Costello's "Every Day I Write the Book" isn't your usual bluegrass standard, but becomes even more interesting here than in the original recording. "The Devil Went Down to Berkeley" contains a great Tony Rice solo, and Anger's fine solo demonstrates the difference between him and Duncan. Both are great fiddlers, but Anger is rooted more in jazz, and Duncan more in bluegrass. Having both on board makes for a wonderfully varied sound from track to track.

"Hummingbird" has a moving vocal solo by Claire Lynch, and "Girl's Breakdown" (a little spin on "Earl's Breakdown," I 'spect) is a hot instrumental, with a very stylish yet nostalgic fiddle solo by Duncan, and a flashy display of banjo chops by Brown. Douglas's dobro adds the perfect weepin'/wailin' sound. "Everybody's Talkin'" fits well into the newgrass groove, with a fine vocal from Tim O'Brien, and "Deep Gap" has great work by Flinner and Grier, whose presence provides even more variety to the mix.

There's an old-timey flavor to "Shake and Howdy," which quickly becomes sly and intricate in the hands of Anger, Marshall, and Brown. Bela Fleck comes on board with "Leaving Cottondale," in which the twin banjos chime like bells. Brown's "Sweet Thing," the closer, is the one to play for anyone who says the banjo can't be a lyrical instrument -- it's sweet, soft, simple and altogether beautiful.

Need I say more? With these musicians, Brown's overall vision for this album, and Compass Records' perfect track record, what are you waiting for? Click on that buy now bar and get your own copy posthaste!

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 25 June 2001

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