The Sommers Rosenthal Family Band,
Down the Road
(American Melody, 2016)

Bluegrass fans will recall Phil Rosenthal from his years (1978-1986) in the popular D.C.-based Seldom Scene, where he served as lead vocalist and songwriter in one of the band's ever-shifting -- and, one might add, strongest -- lineups. (Though the band is still active, it has no remaining original members.) Down the Road is not a bluegrass album, even if genre influences are easily discerned, starting with the title, a traditional song and "Ida Red" variant most prominently associated with Flatt & Scruggs.

At its core, assisted by a small backing group, the Sommers Rosenthal Family Band consists of Rosenthal (various stringed instruments), daughter Naomi Sommers (vocals, guitar) and son Daniel Rosenthal (horns, bass, Fender Rhodes), who together engage with a range of traditional standards, covers and originals. Phil is known for his appealing baritone, applied here to some likable songs, among them his own widely covered "Muddy Water," done memorably, for example, on Johnny Cash's Silver in 1979. Sommers is an exemplary singer, too. She interprets Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," which I'd heard before but to which I hadn't paid much attention. Either it's a better song than I thought it was, or Sommers makes it seem that way.

The choices in material are less surprising than Daniel Rosenthal's trumpet and flugelhorn in places where one would expect the usual downhome instruments. Ordinarily a jazz player, he's comfortable with folkish sounds; after all, he grew up with them. The inclusion of out-of-the-ordinary readings of familiar songs adds a freshness to the likes of "Worried Man Blues," "Midnight Special," "East Virginia" and "Gathering Flowers from the Hillside," each performed by countless folk and bluegrass artists over the decades. Then again, they're the kinds of numbers it is pretty much impossible to tire of.

Even with its original approach Down the Road doesn't feel wildly ambitious. Its purpose is to showcase sturdy songs and to dress them in modestly altered clothes. The spirit is never absent, and the musicianship is always first-rate. Best of all, the family's affection for America's grassroots music is everywhere in evidence.

music review by
Jerome Clark

19 November 2016

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