I’ll come clean, bluegrass isn’t a style of music you’d usually find me listening to. Not that I have any objection to duelling banjos, its just that here in deepest, darkest Cheshire, one doesn’t have any real exposure to live concerts by exponents of the art.
But contrary to what you may be thinking, I’m not entirely a bluegrass ignoramus and had encountered Bela Fleck’s work before, most notably the much lauded ‘Tales From the Acoustic Planet’ album. Moreover, even if you’re someone who only possesses a passing interest in instruments that are strummed and plucked, you’re likely to know that Fleck is considered in some circles at least, as one of the greatest five-string banjo players of all time.
Previously the most prominent member of The Flecktones, Fleck has produced a number of solo projects and, more recently works such as ‘The Bluegrass Sessions’, a collection of tracks recorded with a group of equally talented acoustic musicians. Fleck writes: “Although this group of musicians has never formally been a band, I have always imagined it as one.”
Artists featuring in various roles upon the album, fully titled ‘The Bluegrass Sessions, Tales From the Acoustic Planet Volume 2’ include Jerry Douglas (dobro – a type of resonator guitar), Sam Bush (mandolin), Mark Schatz (bass fiddle), Stuart Duncan (fiddle) and Tony Rice (guitar). Special guests include the legendary Earl Scruggs (banjo), Vassar Clements (fiddle), John Hartford (lead/bass volka), Vince Gill, Tim O’Brien and Ricky Skaggs (all volka) with Joey Miskulin (accordion), Larry Paxton (tuba) and Bob Mater (drums). It’s not hard to imagine the noises these guys are capable of making and the phenomenally high standard of their individual musical abilities.
Aside from the typical bluegrass tracks such as the opening ‘Blue Mountain Hop’ the album features a wide range of subtle styles; there are good ol’ boy songs such as ‘Polka on the Banjo’, gentle lounge-room jazz influences, subtle flamenco elements and even a mixture jazz and flamenco, illustrated by the eclectic opening of ‘Spanish Point’. Describing the album as ‘bluegrass’ really does it a disservice, the wider-ranging ‘Acoustic Sessions’ name is better suited because you really don’t know what’s coming next. This isn’t a formulaic collection of tracks, one blending into another with disappointing monotony; instead one enjoys a sometimes-humorous journey through the unexpected. If I have one criticism it’s that some tracks are a tad long (they don’t develop beyond a certain point), but it’s a minor one given the level of diversity on offer. Watch out for the most up beat, hard-to-recognise version of ‘Home Sweet Home’ ever recorded and a spoken poem (no less) delivered by circling, panning vocals emanating from all five channels.
With the exception of ‘Do You Have Room?’, if I were forced to find a word to sum up the presentation style of ‘The Bluegrass Sessions’ that word would be “intimate”. This is not one of those surround presentations where instruments are discretely placed behind you, and not one of those listening experiences were you feel as though you’re amongst the performers, instead, by subtly wrapping instruments around to the sides of the listening space, engineer Jake Niceley, along with Fleck and Richard Battaglia have managed to uncannily recreate the sense that the musicians are within your room. Stretch out your left arm and you may even be able to pluck Bйla’s five-string.
All six channels are active throughout, although the centre has predominantly been used as a gentle front left/right ‘fill’ rather than to convey an individual performer. Although the LFE is used on all tracks where a bass-line is present, the frequencies are not particularly deep or forceful; the instruments involved just don’t have that ability (remember this is an acoustic album).
In terms of fidelity, I’ll admit to being a little disappointed. The entire disc has a soft, almost muffled quality that does little to enhance the presence of any instrument involved, especially Fleck’s five-string. The result is a rather claustrophobic timbre, one that would benefit from an old-fashioned tweak of your treble control, if such a thing weren’t frowned upon in these days of ‘advanced resolution’ audio. The failing is significant as aside from this one minor foible, the entire disc has been beautifully recorded and worthy of any DVD-Audio collection.
Given that the material isn’t terribly challenging, there are no apparent differences between the MLP and Dolby Digital audio tracks, in terms of fidelity and surround mix they’re all but identical.
Bela Fleck’s ‘The Bluegrass Sessions’ is not only thoroughly enjoyable but offers a true showcase of acoustic talents worthy of any serious music collection. The disc isn’t the last word in fidelity but that can be excused given the merit of the performances on offer.