Rob Ickes,
with Blue Highway,
Big Time
(Rounder, 2004)

Rob Ickes' What It Is was one of the best jazz CDs of 2002, with Ickes turning his Dobro into a legitimate and expressive jazz voice. Now he has gotten the members of his bluegrass group, Blue Highway, to join him on another solo album and the results are equally impressive if very different. Big Time is a solid if forward-looking bluegrass album that should engage not only lovers of that genre but any acoustic music fan.

Ickes' opening riff on "Machine Gun Kelly" tells us we're in bluegrass territory, and the driving song, with Wayne Kelly's strong vocal, is a powerhouse opener. "Elzic's Farewell" boasts some smooth as cornsilk byplay between Ickes, fiddler Shawn Lane and guitarist Tim Stafford, and the lovely, slow "Matt Hyland" is one of those tunes on which the Dobro can sing of sorrow like no other instrument. "Born in a Barn" is a happy creation that sounds like it's been around forever, but is actually a new Ickes composition. Fiddle, Dobro and guitar all get a good aerobic workout on this string-sizzler. Another up-tempo Ickes original, "The Fatal Shore," follows, with some fun and quirky chord changes.

It's always good to hear what creative musicians do with old standards, and Ickes' version of "Wayfaring Stranger" is a blues-tinged masterpiece. He squeezes every bit of emotion from this modal gem. "Fiddler's Dream" is another mile-a-minute instrumental, and A.P. Carter's classic "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes" seems hand-tailored for Ickes' wailing and winkingly humorous soloing. Shawn Lane also contributes mightily on fiddle and Jason Burleson picks a great mandolin solo. Ickes' original "Like Water" comes close to being jazz. It's sharp and precise with some stabbingly askew rhythms.

As good as the CD's been so far, Ickes saves the best for last. Merle Travis's "I am a Pilgrim" really mines the jazz lode. It's a musical conversation between Ickes and bassist Derek Jones on which both men evoke a smoky bar and the clatter of glassware as they ramble arm in arm through the musical landscape. Bill Monroe's "Lonesome Moonlight Waltz" is another highlight, with weeping solos by Ickes, Burleson and Lane, while "Lost Indian" starts off with one of the zippiest Dobro intros you'll ever hear and remains a rollicking good time throughout, with kickin' solos by all involved. Instead of ending with another barnburner, Ickes wisely chooses to speak softly, with the wistful and moving "Ireland, Love of My Heart," an unaccompanied Dobro solo.

Once again, Rob Ickes shows his musical chops and taste to be at an astronomical level. This one's more of a bow to his bluegrass roots and fellow pickers than it is a step forward for the instrument, as in his previous CDs, but there's elegance and eloquence a-plenty to be heard here, as well as some dandy, toe-tappin' pickin'. You'll have a great time with Big Time.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 18 September 2004

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