It’s always a treat to kick back and put on a new Michael Cleveland album.
He’s a multiple award winner that lives up to the bill and then some, a unique fiddler who even plays rhythm his own way with the traditional, polite fiddle rhythm chop replaced by the Cleveland “windshield wiper.” But, when you hear the first cut on Fired Up, an uptempo Tom Adams-penned romp called “Dixie’s Special,” you realize what a true group effort there is at the heart of this project. Cleveland and his fellow Flamekeeper’s riffing on the song is stellar, featuring the musicianship of Adams, Marshall Wilborn, and Jesse Brock. Jessie Baker’s banjo work especially stands out, as it is bright, popping, powerful and right there in the mix with the rest of them.
Fortunately, there is more to this album than the tried and true barnburners. “I’m Yours” is a fun honky-tonk shuffle that’s grab-a-partner danceable, with Adams singing lead, some smooth minimalist drumming provided by Billy Thomas, and Cleveland double-stopping his heart out. The group also puts an old-time fiddle-tune spin to the Buddy Spicher/Jim Martin instrumental “Going Up Dry Branch.”
The album gets sidetracked in the middle, however, with some songs that are fun yet not as strong, with Cleveland spreading the wealth around and letting his bandmates take turns on lead vocals. As the songs progress, you find yourself wanting more of Cleveland’s fiery playing. And that’s what you get with “Hard Time Banjo Blues,” “Going Back To Old Virginia,” and a new Jesse Brock instrumental, “Maine Line.” The album ends with Vince Gill lending tenor vocals to Wilborn’s lead vocals on a wonderful song Wilborn wrote called “Bigger Hands Than Mine.” (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlinton, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) DH