David Royko Psy.D
At The Scene
Sugar Hill SH-CD-3736
Eight String Swing
Sugar Hill SH-CD-3725
At The Scene documents what might be called, for now, the "middle period" of this modern bluegrass institution. Phil Rosenthal had replaced John Starling, while Tom Grey's departure was still several years away. Their recorded sound had improved with the move to Sugar Hill. Drums had infiltrated their recordings, albeit buried so deep in the mix that they are nearly inaudible. Still, they sound like nobody but the Seldom Scene: relaxed in mood, deceptively loose in delivery, yet polished to perfection.
The imaginative vocal arrangements and tight harmonies shine, particularly on Rosenthal's two original gospel tunes, "The Weary Pilgrim" and "Open Up The Window, Noah." Another vocal standout is Jackson Browne's "Jamaica, Say You Will," which also provides an example of dobroist Mike Auldridge's ability to add so much to the texture of a song without drawing attention to himself.
In fact, teamwork is a critical ingredient in this group's distinctive sound. Being a true ensemble, the Seldom Scene's instrumental solo space is consistently divided in such a way that nobody takes the spotlight for more than a few moments. At times this can be frustrating, as the group fine soloists, and an instrumental here or there wouldn't hurt.
To satisfy that desire, however, one can turn to Eight String Swing, one of the finest dobro recordings you will ever hear.
This instrumental tour de force, bursting with creativity without sounding flashy, is a model of musical integrity. Auldridge (playing a dobro with eight strings, as opposed to the usual six), the Seldom Scene and several additional players slide from bluegrass to jazz to swing -- both western and otherwise -- assembling an album filled with peaks and no valleys. The CD, incidentally, includes one "bonus" track, a gentle reading of "Stompin' At The Savoy," from the Seldom Scene LP,After Midnight [SH-3721].
"Bethesda" contains one of Phil Rosenthal's finest lead guitar breaks, while "Swing Street" displays Auldridge's talent as a composer. Pete Kennedy, who plays mandolin and guitar here, provides a fine vehicle for some fervent improvising with "Pete's Place," a tune which brings Stephane Grappelli to mind, an impression only enhanced by Jimmy Arnold's urbane fiddling. Special mention must be made of "Caravan." Too often this over-exposed classic sounds hackneyed and trite. While not matching the shattering intensity and menace of the great Ellington/Mingus/Roach performance on Money Jungle [Blue Note CDP 7 46398-2 (1962)], Auldridge and company provide plenty of snarl and bite, ranking this among the finest of modern renditions.
Newcomers to the dobro, seeking an alternative to Jerry Douglas, should make this disc a top priority.
David Royko [Chicago, IL]
August 11, 1992
(Review originally appeared in the December 1992 issue of Dirty Linen magazine)