As I type, the top five bluegrass albums on the Billboard chart are by Styx’s guitarist, an aggressive almost-bluegrass jam band, three Canadians who have never claimed to be bluegrass singers or instrumentalists, a country singer’s mostly acoustic project from last year, and Steve Martin’s bluegrass experiment Version 2.5.
I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not, but I know this: of those five albums, the most representative of the current state of bluegrass is the astoundingly bright Rare Bird Alert from Steve Martin. I like it more than The Crow, and I thought that was a pretty decent album.
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Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers
Rare Bird Alert
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
When I’m assigned an album to review, it gets a minimum of two listens. Frequently, up to five thorough listening sessions are held before putting fingers to keyboard.
As I type these words, I’m listening to Steve Martin’s astoundingly bright Rare Bird Alert for the twelfth or thirteenth time this week. With each listen, something new appears—a lick I hadn’t previously noticed, a progression that hadn’t registered.
It is entirely justified that the Steep Canyon Rangers are given co-billing with Steve Martin on this album as their contributions contribute to a cohesiveness that was lacking on Martin’s justifiably well-regarded bluegrass album of 2009, The Crow. Whereas that album had numerous guests dropping in, Red Bird Alert’s core is more stable: Martin and the Rangers with The Dixie Chicks, Sir Paul McCartney, and cellist Ron Clearfield appearing on individual tracks.
Additionally, the song selection appears more contemporary; unlike The Crow which contained Martin compositions dating to the late 60s and several of which had previously appeared on The Steve Martin Brothers album of 1981, the notes to Red Bird Alert would appear to indicate that it is comprised of fresher numbers.
Honed by months of road travel, the Rangers and Martin have most obviously developed chemistry. If there is an emerging star within this set it must be Woody Platt. The Steep Canyon Rangers’ vocalist has been notable for his fine voice—quite unlike any other within the bluegrass major league—and throughout Red Bird Alert he is provided numerous opportunities to impress. Hearing him sing “Yellow- Backed Fly” and “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back” one is convinced that there are no limits to what he may attain.
Elsewhere, the competencies of the Rangers are apparent. If Platt is most noticeable from a vocal perspective, Nicky Saunders’ fiddling is an instrumental star; the arrangements are so perfectly attuned to the needs of the song that one can’t listen to these songs without noting Saunders’ brilliant work.
Graham Sharp contributes 5-string in complement to Martin’s playing; the two trade breaks in places (and my ears can’t stop the difference) and when Martin favors clawhammer-style, Sharp sticks to three-fingered rolls. Mike Guggino (mandolin) and Charles Humphrey III (bass) maintain the rhythm and step up for their own little flourishes when the time is right; in the liner notes, Martin rightly draws attention to Humphrey’s break on “Jubilation Day”
Without resorting to hyperbole, Rare Bird Alert contains 35-minutes of almost perfectly balanced bluegrass. The obvious instrumental prowess is augmented by tight harmonies; Martin’s vocal challenges are kept in check by the Rangers’ expertise in this area; up-tempo instrumental pieces are places alongside slower, gentle songs.
“Best Love” (featuring McCartney) and “You” (featuring the Dixie Chicks) could fit comfortably within adult contemporary radio formats and therefore will get much attention. The heart of the album appears to be Martin’s very fine instrumentals. Both “Northern Island” and “The Great Remember” evoke their ambiguities through the nuance of their notes.
Excepting the title refrain, “More Bad Weather on the Way” is a spirited instrumental showcase that affords each of the six principals an opportunity to play off others. “Hide Behind a Rock” and the title track bookend the bulk of the album and as such provide the framing to what is completely invigorating listen.
Martin saves his most blatant comedic moments to the album’s final two tracks, although “Jubilation Day” has its moments earlier on. Comedy may not be pretty, but it is individual so listeners will need to make their own determination of the value of the album’s final seven minutes. “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” while guileful, isn’t clever enough to withstand multiple listenings. On the other hand, “King Tut” never gets old. Go figure.
Finally, the album packaging is terribly impressive. While others labels and artists are minimizing costs, Rare Bird Alert is provided a tri-fold housing and booklet containing elaborately decorated panels, elaborate notes from Martin, and 10 collector cards featuring the participants; excessive perhaps but well-appreciated in this time of belt-tightening and diminishing expectations. Kudos to the design team of G.Carr and Salli and Jim Ratts for making it work.
There are those who continue to challenge the motives of Steve Martin as he explores his love of bluegrass and the banjo. To those I would suggest, Get over it and actually listen! Rare Bird Alert is a spectacular, artistic creation that can only benefit the bluegrass community as a whole.