[17 June 2011]
The International Bluegrass Music Awards selects the Fiddle Player of the Year at its annual ceremony. Eight of the last ten of those awards have gone to Michael Cleveland, the fiddle phenom from Indiana and leader of Flamekeeper. In fact, Cleveland has won the award each of the last five years, so you don’t need me to tell you that Cleveland plays holy hell out of the fiddle.
Cleveland, who was born blind, has been creating a stir in bluegrass circles since he was a teenager and went on to steal shows in a number of bands, most notably Rhonda Vincent’s, before recording a couple of solo discs in the Aughts showcasing his remarkable fiddle playing under his own name. In the last few years, Cleveland formed his own regular band, Flamekeeper, releasing their debut on Rounder in 2008, Leavin’ Town. Now comes Fired Up, and, like its predecessor, it’s a polished set of expertly-played bluegrass from some of the most solid pickers in the business.
Cleveland may lend his name to the ensemble, but he is careful to share the spotlight with his bandmates: Cleveland stands off to the side when they play live, he sings no lead vocals on the record, and the banjo and mandolin are featured (almost) as much as the fiddle. In fact, Flamekeeper divvies up everything—solos, songwriting credits, lead vocals—and they are a remarkably balanced band on this record.
Tom Adams is a particularly nice acquisition for Fired Up. Adams, a veteran banjo ace (Johnson Mountain Boys, Blue Highway), sings lead on most of the songs here, and contributes five originals to the album. He’s a fine bluegrass singer and takes over on the guitar in Flamekeeper, ceding the banjo to fleet-fingered newcomer Jessie Baker.
If it’s red-hot, tight, fast bluegrass that you like, you’ll have a hard time beating songs like “Dixie Special” and “Going Back to Old Virginia”. These guys can flat bring it with the best of them, and much of Fired Up rewards multiple listens due to the electricity and precision of the instrumentalists. “Goin’ Up Branch Creek” is a hoot, for instance, an old Buddy Spicher fiddle tune, first recorded by Jimmy Martin but given an irresistible barndance arrangement here.
On Fired Up, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper put on a clinic of in-the-pocket traditional bluegrass song-pulling and vocal harmonizing. As much emphasis is placed on Cleveland’s solos, and on the flash of the other players, don’t expect Cleveland & Co. to meander into freeform improvisations. It’s true that these guys can play circles around most of today’s jam bands, but this is music that holds true to the Monroe and Stanley and Flatt & Scruggs sacraments. As much as the solos will dazzle you, these pickers keep their breaks tight-fitted to the songs, the kinds of solos that have beginnings, middles, and ends.
As terrific as is the musicianship on Fired Up, it stops short of being a perfect set of songs. The fast numbers are pretty much unimpeachable, but the record has its share of skip-tempters. Baker’s “Untrue Blues” fails to take off, bassist Marshall Wiborn’s album-closing “Bigger Hands Than Mine” is sweet but schmaltzy (and comes with an all-but-inaudible Vince Gill vocal harmony), and Adams’s “Monster Truck” is sillier than funny, with its awkward road-rage lyrics.
Still, Cleveland himself remains a showstopper. He’s a thrill a minute to listen to, the kind of gale-force musical titan that can inspire the best from his fellow players, and when everything clicks, it’s a stellar sound. Unfortunately, all four of Cleveland’s band members have recently left Flamekeeper to pursue other projects. It’s a shame, as sharp as the chemistry on Fired Up is, but it makes this recording all the more valuable, as it apparently turned out to be a once-only event.