"Smooth" can be a damning adjective in bluegrass, so when I saw Pete Wernick's blurb on the back of WayStation's CD, which says the group should "…appeal to listeners who like their bluegrass on the progressive side, smoothly presented, with thoughtful and creative touches," I wasn't sure how well that boded for the contents, or at least for my reaction to them.
But I have reacted with something approaching joy, because WayStation is smooth in that they are extremely polished and rehearsed, but still pack emotion and a bundle of excitement.
From the opening track, "Hard Hard Choices", the exhilaration factor is high, with Rich Stillman's breathless banjo bolting from the ensemble like a horse from a burning barn, while Karen Lincoln's poised lead vocal glides atop the instrumental eruption. Not only here, but through the entire program, instruments spin in and out of the various cycles that these (mainly original) tunes set in motion, keeping one waiting to hear what they will come up with next.
The usual single note unison and harmony passages that one has come to expect from progressive bluegrass are present, and it is all expertly executed. However, what is delightful is how WayStation uses more standard devices in novel but musical ways. For example, in the second verse of Kate Wolf's "Like A River", the fiddle delivers some sizzling accompaniment to the vocal, but its impact is increased by the dramatic manner in which it bursts mid-verse onto the scene. Also, on the slower and sultry "The Nightbird's Song", one of the disc's highlights, a brief bass solo is inserted to further darken an already mysterious aura, making it an organic part of the tune, instead of just "giving the bass player some".
Most of the tunes (11 of 14, two instrumentals) are originals, with subjects that include California forest fires, old-time speakeasies, love (of course), and weddings headed for divorces. In other words, that breath of fresh air extends to the range of subject matter, and the fact that, with the possible exception of Harley Allen's "High Sierras", these are new and unfamiliar songs to most of us. Whether there are any latent classics lurking I can't say, but as a body, they are entertaining.
Every time I hear a CD like this, I am reminded of just how many talented but obscure players exist out there, waiting to be discovered. So, get this disc and discover Stillman, a fine banjoist; Lincoln, a guitarist and terrific singer, with a pure, accurate voice; bassist Dimitri Eleftherakis, who has a jazzer's mind and a 'grasser's drive; chief songwriter, fiddler and guitarist Peter Anick; and mandolinist Ed Kingsley. They make a formidable team, and I hope "Looking for Love" is only their first of many victories.