Sweetwater Reunion,
Almost Bluegrass
(self-produced, 2001)

Sweetwater Reunion is a southeastern Pennsylvania bluegrass band that's gone through several permutations in membership since its beginnings, but the two constants have been founder and multi-instrumentalist Nev Jackson and Ken Gehret, another musician at home with anything that has strings. Together, these two have come up with another Sweetwater Reunion CD, deftly using multitracking to create an entire bluegrass band made up of just two guys, and the results are fresh and exciting.

Except for one track, all fourteen songs and tunes here are Jackson and Gehret originals. The album kicks off with Jackson's "Dare County," a dandy minor key tune with some delightfully quirky chord changes, and is followed by his "End of the Road," an effective vocal lament for the decline of traditional values that boasts some nice harmonies.

Gehret's songwriting steps into the spotlight with "Leave Paradise Alone," a pop-like ballad that works well in the bluegrass idiom. It's haunting and evocative. Jackson's "Earlville" picks up the tempo with a two-minute-plus primer on Scruggs-style banjo, and Jackson continues the fun with the title track, filled with clever lyrics, tight vocal harmonies and instrumental breaks. Gehret next plays his own "Sweetwater Rag," a pippin of a fiddle tune, shifting from major to minor and incorporating some jazz-like chord changes.

Jackson's "Who Are You?" is a gospel song that deserves a wide audience. Its tight vocals have a CS&N quality. His "Hawthorne" is a modal tune, filled with those good old ancient tones and some beautifully baroque instrumental work. "Life and Other Games of Chance" is another Gehret original, a fine song with varying rhythms in verse and chorus.

The album's only non-original, "Chances Are," is a seven-minute instrumental tour de force that gives Jackson and Gehret a chance to stretch out in a jazz idiom with their various instruments, and the result is a fun display of high-grade string chops, including solos on banjo, fiddle, dobro, guitar, and mandolin. Next we're back to vocals, and the boys are joined by vocalist Abby Snyder for Jackson's "Sing That Song Again," a charming and nostalgic number. Gehret goes into self-proclaimed "wacko mando" mode with "What Was I Thinking Reel," a funny tune that takes some odd turns along the way. Write out the chord changes to this one after hearing it once and win a cigar!

Two more Jackson originals close out the CD. "What a Way to Say Goodbye," a bouncy bluegrass song, and "Nagasaki Breakthru," accurately subtitled "An Asian Mountain Breakdown." It's a nifty banjo tune with more than a hint of the east. Don't take out the CD when it's finished, though -- there's a hidden track here, a brief, lovely and ear-bending version of "America the Beautiful" that starts a minute or so after the last listed track.

Almost Bluegrass is a fine album. Jackson and Gehret have a tight vocal blend, and their instrumental skills are superb. Combine their performing talents with top-notch songwriting abilities, and you've got a gem of an "almost" bluegrass CD. You won't find this one in stores, but you can order it online.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 4 May 2002