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by Ken Roseman
Premier British electric-folk band Steeleye Span have undergone a major personnel change: Martin Carthy has rejoined the band and brought in John Kirkpatrick with him. Bob Johnson and Peter Knight left the group to concentrate on their own projects, such as The King of Elfland's Daughter. Now back to our regularly scheduled column . . .
It all started with progressive rock, when basic rock 'n' roll was blended with other influences and techniques to become "progressive" rock. Now other basic forms are going through similar changes, which brings us to today's subject -- "Progressive" bluegrass.
Many bluegrass purists despise the stuff, as do purists of any stripe when their favorite whatever has been tampered with. However, the progressives are introducing new people to the form, and creating vital and exciting music.
Prime movers in this area are The New Grass Revival, Breakfast Special and The Dillards. The former two have recently issued new albums, while a new Dillards lp is expected shortly.
The New Grass Revival have been together for about five years, but have put out only three albums in that time. Their name and techniques have been usurped by others, and their first record company went bankrupt.
The group's first album was strictly acoustic, but a hint of what was to come was present for the discerning to notice. Borrowing improvisational techniques from progressive rock and jazz, and combining these with the energy and melodies of bluegrass, has resulted in some brilliant music.
When The Storm Is Over (Flying Fish) is the band's latest lp and their second with the up-and-coming Flying Fish label of Chicago. It's the most representative of their live sets as it includes one of their excellent longer compositions. "Crooked Smile", an original piece by fiddle/mandolin genius Sam Bush is basically a theme-and-variations featuring some energetic, hard-driving instrumental work. "Colly Davis" is a contemporary folk ballad about a murderer escaping justice. It's sung in a most effective manner by the rough-voiced Curtis Burch, giving it a certain rural, folksy flavor.
The Dillards do a fair bit of original material and have successfully integrated a drummer into the group. While as experimental as the New Grass Revival, they've elected a different path, blending and stretching the borders between folk, bluegrass, country and rock to their limits.
Originally, the group was a straight bluegrass band, but over the years, through various personnel changes and new musical ideas, they've become what they are now: a band solidly rooted in the bluegrass tradition, but with a hell of a lot more to offer. They plan to experiment at both ends as well (the old and the new), becoming more involved with synthesizers as well as concentrating a bit more on a capella close harmony vocals. It's likely that some of this will be reflected in their next album, The Dillards vs. the Incredible L.A. Time Machine. It'll be their first for Flying Fish and is expected shortly.
Incidentally, Rodney and Doug Dillard with John Hartford recently put out Glitter Grass form the Nashwood Hollyville Strings (Flying Fish), an album of straight-ahead electric bluegrass with full instrumental backing from some of Nashville's finest.
Breakfast Special's debut (Rounder) has trouble fitting into any category. Almost all of the tunes are original, and some are more of less straight, but others -- well, let's just say this one is recommended only for those totally fearless in their taste.
Don Watson's been at it for some time, and though he's usually cast as part of the bluegrass fraternity, his music is more of an all-around American roots music, containing elements of bluegrass, blues, old-timey, folk and country. Lonesome Road (United Artists), his latest album with son Merle continues that tradition and has more of the fine pickin' father and son are noted for.
NEW AND NOTEWORTHY
Not much space this time, so I'll just mention a few of the many interesting recent releases . . .
Alan Stivell has just released Before Landing (Fontana UK), his long-awaited concept album based on the history of the Celts. That may sound pretentious, but Stivell's probably the only person that could bring it off. Incidentally, Gryphon's Richard Harvey and Fairport's Dave Swarbrick assist on several cuts.
Horslips' The Book Of Invasions (DIM) is an excellent fusion of psychedelic rock and traditional Celtic influences, and Five Hand Reel's For A' That (RCA UK) shows that not only bands with Fairport connections can produce fine electric-folk.
Worth checking out, but in a different vein, are The Persuasions' Chirpin' (Elektra), if you want to hear the possibilities of just the human voice -- their gospel-tinged vocals are just incredible -- and The Nighthawks' Side Pocket Shot (Adelphi), a solid album in the Paul Butterfield rock-blues tradition.
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