Michael Cleveland,
Flame Keeper
(Rounder, 2002)

For me, the most exciting instrument in bluegrass has always been the fiddle, so when a new album comes along with a brilliant new young fiddler, it always makes me perk up my ears. Believe me, they are well perked to the sounds of Michael Cleveland. Most recently playing with bluegrass diva Rhonda Vincent's band, the Rage, Cleveland has released a solo album that's a gem, filled with wonderful fiddle playing and a wide variety of tunes and songs. He gets strong backup from Jesse Brock on mandolin, Tom Adams on banjo, Jason Moore on bass and Audie Blaylock on guitar.

The CD opens with the sparkling "Dance Around Molly," and is followed by "Six Feet Under the Ground," which boasts rousing vocals by Audie Blaylock and Jeff White. The first track that really made me open my eyes was "North Carolina Breakdown," in which Cleveland demonstrates his mastery over the entire range of the instrument, leaping from very high to very low in just a measure, and keeping an absolute purity of tone and intonation as he does so. The amazing double stop work makes it sound as though he's playing a duet with himself. It's one of the finest fiddle solos I've ever heard.

"Lost Indian" further shows that Cleveland is an extremely inventive fiddler. There are a lot of slick tricks up this young man's sleeves. Jesse Brock provides equally creative mandolin playing here. Cleveland's ending of this tune -- and all his tunes -- is clean and precise. There's not a trace of slur nor sloppiness in his playing. Though the singers (who include Rhonda Vincent and Jim Cornell) are the stars of "Prayer Bells of Heaven," Cleveland shows off his comping chops with tasteful and artistic fills. He shows his more lyrical side with "Blue Violet Waltz," a gorgeous composition on which he plays a great mandolin break as well as more glorious fiddle, with lovely double stops. His intonation is consistently excellent here, as it is in every tune. The notes ring clean and true.

"Rye Straw" is one of those traditional banjo/fiddle duets, an old-timey number that builds to a great climax despite its brevity. Every conceivable hole is filled with Cleveland's inventive runs in "Too Late to Walk the Floor," which bears a strong similarity to "Shady Grove." Cleveland is joined by fiddler Bobby Hicks on Bill Monroe's "Virginia Darling," on which the duo give a classic reading, followed by "Will You Be Satisfied That Way," another fine vocal. There's more dandy banjo/fiddle work in "Bear Creek Hop," with some sharp pizzicato playing, and Monroe's "Goodbye Old Pal" makes a welcome appearance. Cleveland ends it all up with a trio of high contrast tempos: a blindingly fast "Two O'clock in the Morning," a gorgeous vocal arrangement of "Shenandoah Waltz," in which you'd swear the fiddle break had three different players, and a blistering "Lee Highway Blues" that may be the best version I've ever heard of this standard.

Michael Cleveland's fiddling is just phenomenal. It's fast and brilliant, but also clean and precise, and his selection of numbers to show off his many talents is likewise superb. It's a great album from a great young musician with an even greater future ahead of him. Highly recommended!

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 22 June 2002

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