By David Royko
Fireline/Troubled Waters/[original instrumental by Larry Keel with a title made up of nine dots in a pattern]/Kangding/Sweet Love/Last Drink Of Wine/Jerry's Farewell/Men Of God/Keep On Movin'/Leavin' On A Big Jet Plane/Waffle Hoss/Buffalo Creek/Kentucky [fried] Mandolin
Maybe the most impressive thing about this disc is that it was recorded live. While there are moments here and there of insignificant imperfection, the overall level of execution is very high. Bluegrass music is a lot like Mozart, in that much of it may sound simple, but it can be devilish to play, what with all of the exposed string writing and no rock and roll drumming to cover up sloppy or imprecise attacks. The first lines of defense in recording projects are the overdub and the edit, but Magraw Gap, for whatever reasons, be it financial, machismo, or a quest for concert hall excitement, decided to enter the studio and leave the safety net behind in choosing the "live" approach.
The sound itself is nothing special, and while it is acceptable and certainly listenable, it does not glisten like the best productions, independent or otherwise, that have become commonplace in the CD market. No matter, because the musical values are what count, and they are in place.
Based on the evidence at hand, Magraw Gap are a bunch of newgrassers at heart, but with a couple of differences that set them apart from many others who worship more at the alter of Bush than Bill. First, their songs are usually short and to the point. Second, they have a banjo picking songwriter in Will Lee who actually composes vocal tunes in a solidly traditional vein that owes more to Monroe than anybody, but without ignoring the fact that it ain't 1946 anymore. And they are good tunes. "Sweet Love" could be seen (and heard) as a cousin of "Walk Softly on this Heart of Mine," while "Men Of God," which he co-authored, is simply an excellent inspirational bluegrass song with a secular attitude. His "Leavin' On A Big Jet Plane" is another catchy tune, and assuming it is he who sings his originals, Lee has a voice that is as gritty and redolent of the backwoods as it is accurate in intonation.
But as I said already, this is not a group of traditionalists. Larry Keel, the group's guitarist, writes instrumentals that lovers of dawg, Tony Rice and either era of New Grass Revival should relish. Single string passages, stop/start ensembles under jazzy soloing, and Keel's own truly exceptional, Rice-flavored guitar picking ornament his "Jerry's Farewell," which also stirs up memories of Berline/Crary/Hickman string harmonies, and his tune with the title that defies easy typesetting. Maybe if I knew braille, it would make more sense.
Two other instrumentals pay tribute to Big Mon. "Waffle Hoss" is their variant on "Wheel Hoss" and vacillates between herky jerky rhythms, hot jams, and a few spacey moments. "Kentucky [fried] Mandolin" is Magraw Gap's arrangement of Monroe's unfried original, and the funny thing is, it is less recognizable in this state than "Wheel Hoss" is as it comes out of the waffle iron, though mandolinist Danny Knicely takes composer credit for the waffle, while the group credits Monroe for "Kentucky Mandolin." Go figure, but not for too long, since both make for a whole lotta fun listening.
Overall, the vocals are very appealing in a rough hewn way, sounding on Drew Emmit's "Troubled Times" like Crosby, Stills and Nash, on Bob Marley's "Keep On Movin'" like the Grateful Dead, and on Lee's tunes, distinctive and unique. There is even a whiff of the late '60s Country Gentlemen's sound on John Doan's "Fireline," and the guest vocal by Sally Barris on her co-original, "Last Drink Of Wine," provides a fresh dollop of leavening, her clear, smooth soprano sounding something like an Alison Krauss/DeDe Wyland hybrid, adding some high pitched polish to the album's program. I have not mentioned bassist and vocalist John Flower yet, because he is, in my opinion, what a bassist should be, a solid, behind-the-scenes cornerstone for the band to build upon.
Though I name-dropped many bands and styles in describing Magraw Gap, it is only to convey their flavor, and not to suggest that they are copies of those groups. This is a talented band with its own personality, and a winning one it is.
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