There is a reason why banjoist Alison Brown’s music has joined space shuttle crews four times now. Her compositions are full of the technical wizardry that scientists crave, while simultaneously being full of joy. Astronauts are humans too, and who wouldn’t want to wake up to such positive melodies? Mission Specialist John Grunsfeld actually took the CD with him so he could have the first listen in space. That in itself is interesting as most astronauts take i-pods. Though it would be fun to look down on Earth while listening to Alison’s quintet, you don’t have to. The music alone will take you on a wild ride.
Husband, bassist, and Compass Records co-founder Garry West backs Alison on her 10th release. Pianist John R. Burr is back trading breaks with Brown, but a more recent member is mandolinist, fiddler, and percussion master Joe Craven. Not only does the band now offer another soloist, with Joe, it offers three! To maintain variety, some tunes are bluegrass based, one sounds Caribbean, and another hints of the Irish. All of them are jazzy, acoustic, and joyful.
The album’s title is from Don Quixote: “Tell me the company you keep and I’ll tell you what you are.” Alison didn’t realize it when she chose the name that there was a double meaning. Though she is the star, her bandmates are equal to the task, inspiring each other and her to deeper levels. Secondly, the company she keeps is Compass Records.
Her label is in its fifteenth year, thriving by focusing on independent music with top releases only boasting sales of a few thousand units. That may not sound like much, but others in the music business are involved with closures, mergers, and sales that are down. Alison Brown’s music and her label are up. (JB)
Ashleigh Flynn flew under our radar for much longer than she should have. It wasn’t until she opened for Todd Snider did we see that she could command attention from listeners unfamiliar with her. She sold 45 albums at intermission during the concert we attended.
Flynn hails from the banks of the Ohio River and has been playing out for over 10 years, travelling throughout the country. Her voice is gruff but sensitive and the heartfelt truth behind her lyrics is constantly compelling.
Flynn isn’t afraid to wear her feelings on her sleeve. In “The Seventh Sea”, she unapologetically leaves behind others and finds solace in herself. She passionately sings of the displaced people of New Orleans in the title track “American Dream”, and brings the listener to Kentucky coal country in “Hazard County”. Throughout the album, listener’s are shown a myriad of emotions and tense situations from Flynn. But despite the serious nature of many of the songs, it’s difficult not to smile and sing along. (DH)
Most of us take a little bit of time off during the summer for vacation – usually to get away from the stress of our work and just relax. Bela Fleck, for the first time in about 15 years took some time off in the early months of 2005. His mission was not to rest and relax, but to go to Africa and study the origins of the banjo – filming a documentary of his travels and recording the music he made with the continent’s aboriginal musicians.
At the last moment, Sony, who was footing the bill for this endeavor, backed out. Bela Fleck soon found himself as the financier of a major multimedia project. However, Fleck still followed through and completed both the album and the documentary entitled Throw Down Your Heart.
All the tracks feature amazing African musicians doing traditional music. Fleck brings the banjo back to its African roots and plays alongside these prodigies, careful to let their talents shine while he moves out of the spotlight. Every song was recorded in Africa with the exception of “Thula Mama,” recorded when Fleck unexpectedly ran into Vusi Mahlasela in Boulder, Colorado.
Fleck just finished touring with Toumani Diabate, Vusi Mahlasela, Anania Ngoglia & D’Gary – all of whom are on the album, and will be doing many more appearances with Toumani Diabate and Oumou Sangare in the coming months. (DH)
Harvey Reid burst on the scene over 20 years ago by winning national championships on multiple instruments. Few have done that other than Mark O’Connor. Neither are in competitions any more. Both are too busy creating. This is Harvey’s 21st recording, his first solo album since the 2003 autoharp release. On “Blues and Branches” Reid plays 11 different guitars, 6 string banjo, and autoharp. (He doesn’t need a band!)
Joyce Anderson does make two cameos, one if which is an old spiritual “Let your Light Shine On Me.” They trade off singing verses because they both love the song, and their harmonies are close and pure. A wise sage once wrote: Those who sing together stay together. (They are married.) There is reference to a lighthouse in the song, which is special for them since they see one daily where they live in Maine.
The albums highlight song is Harvey’s original “From Where I Stand.” This heartfelt editorial is a revelation about mankind’s only hope for survival. You’ll have to listen to discover his answer which may seem simple at first, but if it were, this song wouldn’t be necessary. Other highlights are Harvey’s commentary on Hollywood and hearing him play and sing the blues on autoharp. What a hoot. Harvey Reid is the perfect example as to how an independent musician can survive. He plays 20 instruments. He writes, sings, and arranges. He has his own label, newsletter, and was one of the first to embrace the internet years back. Today he has a musical partner and is the father of two. Since little Otto is now playing, perhaps a family band is in the future. Why not? (JB)
By Jim Blum and Doug Hite