(Compass Records, 1999)
In acoustic music, there are supergroups, and then there are supergroups. NewGrange is one of the latter, made up of (in alphabetical order) phone book frontrunner and pianist Philip Aaberg, Darol Anger on fiddle, banjoist Alison Brown, Mike Marshall on guitar and mandolin, Tim O'Brien on lead vocals, bouzuki and mando, and Todd Phillips on bass. Everyone except Aaberg takes a stint on mando as well during the course of this rich and vibrant album.
Every one of these musicians is a master of his or her particular instrument, and this aggregation has recorded together before as Heritage on last year's A Christmas Heritage, a highly recommended album for this time of year. NewGrange, however, is a non-seasonal selection of tunes that shows off the musicians' talents, individually and as a group, just as brightly. It is a blend of the traditional and the new that everyone from staunch bluegrass loyalists to fans of acoustic jazz should like.
We start off with the traditional "Handsome Molly," which provides a perfect introduction to the group at large, with O'Brien's warm vocal, Brown's gentle banjo solo, and a mandolin solo that makes you wish everyone played that instrument the way Marshall does. In his hands it becomes, not a percussion instrument that merely chops at the beat, but a mellow spinner of melodies that revives its sweet Italian heritage. The album continues with the most kickass arrangement of "Sally Ann" you'll ever hear, complete with triple fiddles (which, I'm assuming, are all played by Anger, since no one else is credited with fiddle). Again, both banjo and mandolin are sweet and melodic, with long and ringing sustain, a real change from their usual percussive/assault-the-ear approach too many bluegrass players use.
And speaking of ring and sustain, it's a real delight when Aaberg's piano enters the mix. You tend to forget he's there, and all of a sudden there's this rollicking piano sound, a logical extension, after all, of string music. An Aaberg original, "Under the Hood," follows, with fiddle and piano in a unison that produces a harpsichord-like tone. There's a free-flowing melody here that provides plenty of room for soaring improvisations. The piano continues to shine in a rousing introduction to "Rock In a Weary Land," a reminder of the days when bluegrass groups would take a break for a few gospel numbers. The vocal harmonies in the chorus makes one wish this group would sing more than they do! This one rocks, with a jaw-dropping Anger fiddle solo, and some barrelhouse piano work that's a real killer. You'll be singing along by the end.
Aaberg's "Cabin Waltz" is a sublime follow-up, a gorgeous and restful oasis of sound. Anger's arrangement of "Goin' to Boston" is graced by wonderful fiddle solos, a background falsetto giggler whose laughter is too contagious, and lyrics sung and rapped by Tim O'Brien that depart from the traditional with verve and wit (though it's Richard Dreyfuss, rather than Richard Benjamin, who was in The Goodbye Girl -- Benjamin was in Goodbye Columbus).
Alison Brown's "Weetabix" provides a gently swinging melody and some classic counterpoint between the various instruments, while Todd Phillips' "Round Trip" takes us further into non-traditional territory with a transcendent melody and another opportunity for Aaberg to show how much he adds to the string mix. "Stone Coal West Virginia" is a fine, straight ahead bluegrass song that gives all the players a chance to return to their roots, and they prove they can play the straight stuff as well as anyone.
A Mike Marshall original, "Shoot the Moon," puts the mandolin out front, with meters that change more often than candidates' views. It just shows how at home these consummate musicians are with anything that's thrown at them, standing head and shoulders above pure bluegrass players. "Land's End," an O'Brien original, gives us live ambience and an intricate mando/guitar duet. The album ends on a touching note with "Music Tree": lovely chorus, warm vocal harmonies, lyrics to bring a smile, and a sheer simplicity that reminds us of where all these sounds have come from, with just enough metrical complexity to suggest where they're going.
This is new acoustic music merged with the traditional, played by masterful and intelligent artists. You'll find insightful solos, highly collaborative ensemble work, fresh compositions, and new takes on traditional tunes. No matter what your own musical tastes, you're bound to find in NewGrange music that will grace your life.