Bluegrass Pickin’ and Singin’

If you loved the New Acoustic music catapulted into the stratosphere by David Grisman, Tony Rice, John Reischman and others exploding out of the Bay Area in the 1970s and early ’80s, you know the legacy of the Gasoline Brothers. At small concerts and close-quarter gigs around the Bay Area and beyond, the interaction between Grisman and Rice bordered on incendiary as they tore through “Dawg’s Rag” and levitated their audiences with “Swing 51.”

We, of course, will never hear Rice play or sing again. And so, the labels he recorded for, with one notable exception, have scoured their archives to bring us fresh performances. Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label obviously possesses a deep archive of live tapes, radio broadcasts, studio outtakes and alternate takes of the music Tony and David created.

Here, the label gives us a wonderful, intimate in-studio concert in Japan in May of 1976 when Grisman and Rice toured Japan as The Bluegrass Quintet band with Bill Keith, Richard Greene, and Todd Phillips. In addition, we have tracks from a house jam (heart be still) in Grisman’s living room in Marin County in the 1970s. Think Pizza Tapes here.

“The second session was an informal jam recorded somewhat later in the 1970s in my living room in Mill Valley, California, with my old friend Steve Arkin on banjo, along with Tony, Todd and me. Nearly every tune was recorded in one take and the feeling of spontaneity and energy is palpable,” Dawg explains in the liner notes.

Six of the 15 tunes here came from the live radio broadcast in Japan. On tunes from it like “Old Joe Clark,” we find Rice still formulating his distinct style and capacity to deliver it on stage through a mic. Very interesting stuff for deep students of the Tony Rice style. The last tune from that session included here is “Back Up and Push,” which was a great closing number. It’s a great up-tempo piece with Keith’s banjo driving the band over Phillips’ loquacious bass, inspiring Tony to remarkable heights. 

There’s certainly no lack of musical combustion or tempo on “Salt Creek,” as Rice and Grisman race off, a perfect carbeuration of intensity and precision. There’s a sizzling solo by Keith on this one, then Rice comes in channeling Clarence White like no one else could. Todd Phillips is at his propulsive best, laying down the foundation for Rice and Grisman, who just fires through his second solo, igniting a thunderous reply from Rice. Maybe the Japanese espresso kicked in just in time.

The home jam session tunes have that looser, anything can happen vibe. The Japanese recording, expertly remastered by the Acoustic Disc engineering team, presents a clear soundstage and excellent separation between instruments. Relaxed and free from rehearsals and tight arrangements, the nine living room jam tunes here give us a true fly-on-the-wall perspective of great bluegrass musicians kicking back and hanging fun playing with their buddies. 

Unlike the more professional, controlled tunes on the Japanese recording, hanging in Dawg’s living room gives Rice & Friends the freedom to blunder, to mess things up here and there. But he’s clearly inspired in this setting, launching into soulful, fulfilling vocals on “Freeborn Man,” then jumping into a pulsing tempo locked into the band’s tempo, invoking the Gasoline Brothers at their incendiary best. The tune evokes a big laugh from Tony at the end, with him asking ironically, “Was that alright?”

Nothing in the notes says how this was recorded, but it’s clearly not as sophisticated as the Japanese recording. At times, Tony’s Rock of Gibraltar rhythm playing overloads the mic. On “Pig In A Pen,” Tony’s voice strains to hit the high notes. Signs of things to come, sadly, but how wonderful that we get to marvel at his gifts in such an intimate setting.

As one would expect, Gasoline Brothers; Bluegrass Pickin’ and Singin’ delivers another look into the genius that inspired the music and inflammatory instrumental interplay between Dawg and Rice. The music released on this digital download is absolutely essential to Tony Rice fans still in shock over our loss, desperate to glean any and all kernels left in the many furrows he plowed. From a broader perspective, it’s nice to have this out, but Grisman clearly never intended to release these tracks commercially. The release undoubtedly presents a great find for Tonyphiles and fans of the original Grisman Quintet. To others, it’s an enjoyable listen with some memorable moments but not the recording anyone would direct a first-time Dawg music listener.

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Comments

  1. I was the banjo player on the c.1977 jam at David’s house and I need to point out that the reviewer missed the list on the liner notes that indicates the nine tracks came from that jam and the six that were recorded at the concert in Japan.
    Specifically, he attributes Old Joe Clark and Salt Creek to the Japan concert (at which Bill Keith was playing banjo). However, those tracks were unquestionably from the jam at David’s house and it was actually me playing banjo on both of those tunes (both of which I started)! In fact, another way to verify which track was recorded at which session would be to notice that only the six tracks from Japan (with Keith on banjo) included a fiddle (played by Richard Greene). I would appreciate it if David McCarty would be kind enough to retract and correct this error on the Bluegrass Unlimited website as well as in print. I was surprised and delighted that David dug up the recordings of that session and I’m especially happy with my playing on those two tunes!
    Respectfully,
    Steve Arkin

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