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As a rule, I'm not crazy about instrumental bluegrass. Yes, hot licks and killer chops are pretty essential to any good bluegrass band, but I think of bluegrass, like the blues, as music rooted in passionate, deeply soulful singing. (Which is why all those bluegrass acts that would sound like barbershop quartets if they put down their instruments seriously bum me out.)
The bluegrass band led by fiddler Michael Cleveland, which plays about half and half instrumental and vocal music, is a major exception to my aforementioned rule. On last year’s excellent Let 'Er Go, Boys (Rounder), they never ease up: the breakdowns storm like mad, and even when the singing is chill—as on a wonderful stroll through the Jimmy Martin tune “Night”—there’s a concentrated intensity to the performance. A number of guest stars sit in on the album, including Del McCoury, Dan Tyminski, Rob Ickes, Larry Sparks, and even that sentimental twit Vince Gill, but star power has little to do with the music’s power. Guitarist Audie Blaylock, who served nearly a decade in Martin’s great Sunny Mountain Boys, ably handles vocal chores here and there, while mandolinist Jesse Brock scorches like an arsonist. Bassist Barry Reed isn’t on the album, and banjoist Pete Kelly only makes a few appearances, but unless the aptly named Flamekeeper—that’s what Cleveland calls his band—employ a radically different MO sans guests, I can’t imagine how they couldn’t get listeners to levitate.
They roll into town this weekend to play the “Northern Illinois in Naperville” Bluegrass Festival—decent lineup, a terrible name—on Saturday. I know country has become suburban music over the last few decades, but this red-hot band deserves better than a Holiday Inn in Naperville.