The Flame Burns Bright

Michael Cleveland: Solos arising organically from well-tempered arrangements in what sounds like a new chapter for the fiddler extraordinaire
Michael Cleveland: Solos arising organically from well-tempered arrangements in what sounds like a new chapter for the fiddler extraordinaire

flamekeeperON DOWN THE LINE

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper

Compass Records


Nine-time IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year Michael Cleveland was all of 13 when Allison Krauss introduced him to Grand Ole Opry audiences, and seven years later, following a post-high school stint with Dale Ann Bradley’s band, he was a key cog in one of Rhonda Vincent’s finest-ever Rage lineups. A couple of years later, in 2002, he returned to the Dale Ann Bradley fold and also launched his solo recording career with an album titled Flamekeeper, an appropriate billing for a young man leaning on and dedicated to invigorating traditional bluegrass. He continued on his solo path thereafter, adding more awards to his trophy case, and in 2008 introduced the Flamekeeper band on his Rounder album Leavin’ Town. Including a live album with Tom Adams (Live at the Ragged Edge, 2004), Cleveland released five Rounder album before moving to the Compass label. What’s different on his impressive Compass debut is its featuring Cleveland and Flamekeeper as fans experience them on stage, as a self-contained band, sans any high profile guest artists. Whether this decision was at Compass’s behest or Cleveland’s (or a mutual agreement), it was a smart move. On Down the Line, a terrific record by any standard, illustrates the band’s elevated cohesion and vibrant interplay even as it highlights the selflessness Cleveland brings to his bandleader’s calling. Which is not to say the fiddle plays a secondary role here—you always know the man is there and will add his signature to whatever’s being played but nowhere does it sound like he’s butting in in order to call attention to himself; rather, his solos arise organically from the well-tempered arrangements, sometimes in a prominent position early in a track, at other moments deeper into the running time when a brief flurry can add a little extra juice or emotional weight to the performance as a whole. And needless to say, when he steps out on a solo he plays with concision and passion, exactly what’s needed in the way of mood and/or energy and nothing more.

Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper perform a live version of Julian Lennon’s ‘Too Late for Goodbyes’ at the National SPBGMA Convention in Nashville, January 31, 2014. The song is the first cut on the band’s new album, On Down the Line.

In graciously ceding the spotlight to others in order to assure the whole being a group rather than an individual statement, Cleveland shares the dominant role on On Down the Line with his stellar guitarist/lead vocalist Josh Richards, whose clear, lived-in tenor is a most affecting instrument on its own made doubly effective by its owner’s savvy sense of shading for maximum emotional impact. He hits the bull’s-eye right off the bat, with a reading of Julian Lennon’s “Too Late for Goodbyes” that hits all the right anguished notes in a hard charging arrangement propelled in equal measure by Glenn Gibson’s banjo and Cleveland’s fiery fiddling, with a tasty mandolin solo from Nathan Livers adding a tasty, meditative texture to the otherwise rambunctious affair. Mark “Brink” Brinkman’s “Fiddlin’ Joe” is on the surface a jolly dance tune but with an undercurrent of sadness over the fiddler’s moment passing into a lonely next day (“play it so good, fiddlin’ Joe, tomorrow we’ll be feeling low…”), and Richards’s restrained reading of this truth adds interesting tension when juxtaposed with Cleveland’s and Gibson’s spirited soloing behind him.

Selected Track: The Sunny Side of Town, a Josh Richards original from On Down the Line

A Richards co-write (with Todd Alan Rakestraw) “The Sunny Side of Town,” the album’s most memorable number, is a thoughtful, folk-flavored rumination on a life reclaimed from the dregs keyed by his own rich acoustic guitar and Glenn Gibson’s dobro but the regret infusing his vocal, and the ache when other band members join him in harmony on the chorus, makes this one a real heart tugger demanding repeat listens, not least for the evocative, understated solos Nathan Livers (on mandolin) and Glenn Gibson (on dobro) add to the moody atmosphere. Running a close second to “The Sunny Side of Town” is Richards’s celebratory southern gospel outpouring, “Over On the Other Side,” a joyous anticipation of heavenly reunion that’s mirrored not only in the cheery lead vocal and close-harmonized multi-part choruses but even more so in Cleveland’s impossibly heated fiddle sorties with Gibson’s hard charging banjo nipping at his heels. From other sources come “When the Warden Turns the Key,” a poignant confession of a gent who strayed from the straight and narrow and now awaits his forthcoming execution; and the tender story of a lifelong love affair, delivered with striking nuance by Richards, with Cleveland adding, as he does on “When the Warden Turns the Key,” sensitive, probing bowing to enhance the story’s dramatic arc. Richards also contributes a sprightly original instrumental in “Come Along Jody,” an occasion for him (on guitar), Livers (mandolin), Gibson (banjo) and Cleveland to engage in some energetic discourse around the horn as bassist Tyler Griffith keeps the bottom solid. And the last thing you think the world needs is another version of “Orange Blossom Special” but Cleveland, while not adding classical or Beatles interpolations as does the Steep Canyon Rangers’ Nicky Sanders in his amazing showcase version of the old warhorse, does find new effects—some jittery, sandpapery sawing here, long, lean lines there—in between the crowd pleasing rip roaring sections. On the whole, On Down the Line sounds much like the start of a new chapter in Cleveland’s career and even more so like one of this year’s top traditional bluegrass albums to boot.


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