Seldom Scene,
Scene It All
(Sugar Hill, 2000)

If this were any other group, Scene It All would be a good, solid bluegrass album, filled with masterful picking and fine vocal harmonies, with a few decent tunes, a few misfires, and the rest somewhere in a semi-enjoyable limbo. Unfortunately, this is a Seldom Scene album, and one has certain expectations as a result. Unfortunately, those expectations can never again be met, due to the very regrettable death of John Duffey several years ago.

John Duffey was, let's all be willing to face it, the heart and soul of Seldom Scene. He had been their mandolin player and tenor vocalist from the beginning, and no matter how the personnel changed over the years, Seldom Scene always somehow managed to sound like Seldom Scene, even when most of its members defected to devote their time to Chesapeake. The reason was that John Duffey was still there, along with banjo player Ben Eldridge. Now that Duffey is gone, and Eldridge alone is left of the original group, it becomes audibly evident that it was Duffey that gave the band its distinctive vocal sound. The current group is a fine band, and how could it not be, made up as it is of Eldridge, Dudley Connell, Lou Reid, Ronnie Simpkins and Fred Travers, fine bluegrass musicians all.

But it is not, and will never be again, Seldom Scene. It's like the Bluegrass Boys without Bill Monroe, or Quicksilver without Doyle Lawson. Duffey was the ill-dressed straw that stirred the drink, and his tenor voice was unmistakable. This CD's liner notes pay tribute to Duffey, but his aural absence is sorely felt in the music.

This album, the first to be recorded without Duffey, starts off with a hot version of Muddy Waters' "Rollin' and Tumblin'," then goes into "Dusty," a country ballad that shows off some gorgeous harmony singing. "I Will Always Be Waiting for You" is a Jim and Jesse song, with more tight vocals and a wailing dobro solo by Fred Travers.

The vocals on "Blue and Lonesome," a song that Bill Monroe supposedly wrote with Hank Williams, are another matter. The high tenor on this one is pinched and forced, out of the singer's range, making for an unpleasant sound too much of the time. "You Better Get Right" is a decent gospel number, but one questions the inclusion of "Walkin' the Dog," which turns the Patsy Cline specialty number into just one more generic bluegrass tune, interchangeable with a dozen others.

"From This Moment On" offers more evidence that though the harmonies are fine, this edition of Seldom Scene is lacking strong solo voices, at least in the way the forces are mustered on this particular album. A Carl Jackson song, "When the Walls Come Tumblin' Down," is next, and is fairly inconsequential, as is the version of Bob Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather." Doing bluegrass versions of Dylan has become a cottage industry in recent years, with some excellent results (Tim O'Brien's Red on Blonde) and some execrable (Pickin' on Dylan, which justly earned my most vitriolic review ever). This one's in the middle, pleasant but unmemorable.

"Trust in the Tide" is a bit more interesting musically than what's come before, but the cover of Bruce Springsteen's "One Step Up" only makes one anxious to hear the original again. The singers' hearts just don't seem to be in this one. Chuck Berry's "Nadine" gets the final cover treatment, and it's not much to write home about. Solo dobro predominates, as it does in so many of the tracks, making for a similar sound throughout too many of the cuts. After the last track, keep the disc spinning, for there's a hidden track of the band working with John Duffey, the only chance you'll get on the CD to hear the authentic Seldom Scene sound. It's brief, but long enough to remind us of what we're missing.

Scene It All is the perfect title for this album. Indeed, we've seen and heard it all before, and this collection strikes me not so much as a new, vibrant, vital album from a band with a great past and a better future than as an attempt to keep the old franchise chugging along. Even the last sentence of John Starling's liner notes -- "Listen -- these guys are having fun!" -- is not so much an invitation to join in as to desperately convince us that it's the truth, in spite of what we may be hearing to the contrary.

[ by Chet Williamson ]



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