Sam Bush,
Laps in Seven
(Sugar Hill, 2006)

Sam Bush is a well-regarded name on the bluegrass and country music scene, having collaborated with many of Nashville's finest luminaries -- most notably as a member of Emmylou Harris' band, the Nash Ramblers. His wide-ranging experience really comes to the fore on this collection, effortlessly straddling the genres of country, bluegrass and folk. Sam's rich, well-worn vocal style really impresses and the musicianship displayed throughout is always impeccable and often mind-blowing.

A cover of Julie Miller's "The River's Gonna Run" features former collaborator Harris singing duet vocals. This is no sweet, formulaic Emmylou duet though, and the vocals she contributes are sung in a relatively low register, resulting in a much darker, brooding performance. This is an interestingly constructed song where one vocal part responds to the other, converging seamlessly in perfect harmony before being set free again in their own distinct directions.

Fans of modern bluegrass (or "new-grass" as it is referred to on Sam's website) will find much to enjoy on Laps in Seven. Sam is accompanied by some immensely talented musicians, with a good number of the songs featuring some rollicking instrumental breaks on mandolin, banjo and fiddle, along with some delicious bluegrass-style vocal harmonies. There is even a distinct gospel style on "I Wanna Do Right" -- Sam's own composition and a tribute to the victims of Hurricane Katrina -- which features some really funky organ playing.

Darrell Scott's "River Take Me" takes the album to a whole different level of excellence. Scott's lyrics make good use of the characteristics of the river, perfectly employed as analogies of life; the drama, the serenity, the danger, the nourishment. This is impeccably matched by the band's performance that flows along in a sublime manner, gathering pace and ferociousness at just the right moments, with Sam's vocals perfectly portraying the very human emotions of everyday life and loves.

With "River Take Me," you could well imagine that you have reached the highpoint of the album. That is until you hear the next track, David and Linda LaFlamme's "White Bird." Again, deploying the obvious analogies provided by the song's title, "White Bird" really does take flight, swooping and gliding out of your speakers. Andrea Zonn contributes breathtaking harmony vocals, as well as some inspired violin and viola, which give this track a very different feel from the rest of the album -- less rootsy, more polished, but nonetheless superb. The interplay between male and female vocal along with prominent violin really puts me in mind of the sound created by early Fairport Convention or Sandy Denny's Fotheringay.

Having seen Sam's name crop up as a musician with so many other artists, I had rather naively assumed that Sam was "just" a session musician. Laps in Seven was quite a revelation, and left me in absolutely no doubt that Sam is a consummate artist himself, with an unquestionable talent for arranging and performing. This is an artist at the top of his game, surrounded by the very best in the business -- the best musicians, the best songs -- all coming together on this remarkable recording.

by Mike Wilson
4 November 2006

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