at the Old Town School of Folk Music
Monday, May 7, 2001
WORTH THE WAIT: COWAN'S VOICE, BAND DAZZLING
By David Royko
When the now-legendary New Grass Revival, which boasted Sam Bush and Bela Fleck as members, broke up in 1989, one of the big questions was: What would lead singer and bassist John Cowan do with his golden voice? Rumors ranging from heavy metal to country rock buzzed through bluegrass festival crowds, but for the better part of the '90s, Cowan's profile was distressingly low. Saturday night at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Cowan finally delivered the answer, and it was worth the wait.
Like Bush and Fleck in their post-New Grass careers, Cowan has assembled a band of exceptional musicians to play music that cannot be easily defined or confined. The instrumentation hints at bluegrass, with banjo, acoustic guitar and Dobro sharing the stage with Cowan's electric bass. But the drums that propelled the group come out of rock and blues, which also happen to be where Cowan's musical roots lie.
The John Cowan Band's early set shifted from languid ballads to rocking funk to whip-crack instrumentals. Anchoring it all was Cowan's propulsive yet fluid bass lines, sometimes overshadowed by the dazzling charisma of his voice.
To handle the kaleidoscope of his musical tastes, Cowan has assembled a simpatico ensemble of Nashville studio stars. Banjoist Scott Vestal, Dobro player Randy Kohrs and guitarist Jeff Autry each possess the rare ability to play beautifully within the bluegrass tradition while being even better suited to the progressive turf inhabited by Cowan.
The sensitivity of Kohrs' slide work on "Dark as a Dungeon" acted almost as a harmony vocal to Cowan's profound and soaring lead, and Vestal's banjo on "Can't Stop Now" brought forth a flurry of notes so fast and forceful that they sounded as if they were being shot from a tornado.
But this group exists first and foremost to showcase Cowan's voice, and the only thing as miraculous as its sound is that it has, if anything, improved over time. The sheer power and radiant glow are as bountiful as ever, but his attention to phrasing, as well as the range of expression and nuance of shading he displayed Saturday, evidenced a deeper maturity, suggesting that Cowan feels no need to prove himself through vocal acrobatics, though when it was time to belt it out, the man did not disappoint.
Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott, whose set preceded Cowan's, delivered a different kind of intensity. The contrast, with the duo switch-hitting between guitars, mandolins, bouzouki and fiddle, could not have been greater. Their informal yet precise performances were striking for the degree of emotion they managed to wring from diverse material that stretched from originals to obscure material by classic songwriters.
[Photo: John Cowan's voice is still powerful, but his attention to phrasing suggests a deeper maturity.]