Friday, July 29, 2005

Langhoff Unpublished: Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver's A School of Bluegrass

This was admittedly a bit long for something that would likely garner no interest from Village Voice readers; I never heard back from Chuck. I actually placed it in my Pazz & Jop Poll Top 10 for 2004, which was kind of an overstatement, but I didn't hear that many CDs last year. And it is a really interesting CD, if exhausting.

Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver
A School of Bluegrass

Bluegrass didn’t make it into Derek Bailey’s 1980 Improvisation treatise, but probably just because he couldn’t interview any practitioners by deadline--I bet Derek’s right at home with the deprecating wit, oral tradition, and even the tight constraints (YOU try playing “free” without breaking into “Autumn Leaves” or something) that bluegrass players embrace. Of all the hot playing on Doyle Lawson’s brilliantly-titled silver anniversary comp, the hottest moment comes from young roving fiddler Hunter Berry, who slashes his way through “Twinkle Little Star” (his only track) with wild invention, while still landing on the ones. But mandolinist Doyle makes sure everyone else in his revolving lineup has a great time, picking and swinging and filling any dead air with matter-of-fact melody.

That’s improv in micro--this two-disc live-and-rehearsal overview also documents the macro-improvisation of Doyle Lawson as a bandleader. As the notes point out, bluegrass folks “experiment” too; they’re just not WEIRD about it. Over 25 years, Doyle and the boys play around with sacred and secular, black gospel standards and ‘75 Bee Gees, fiddle and non-fiddle, piano and nose trumpet, all while maintaining exceptionally tight instrumental and a cappella ensemble. There’s an unfortunate patch where evangelism overwhelms the shredding fun, so when Doyle advises “Please listen to the words,” you can skip ahead a few tracks. Outside those, 40 of the 50 tunes create a monument to music-as-everyday-work that grows more mysteriously satisfying with every listen--not unlike 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong, with which this package shares more than you’d think.

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