[17 September 2009]
Call it a contemporary bluegrass party where all the attendees just happen to hold resumes that render the term “almost perfect” anything but hyperbolic. Multi-instrumentalist Bryan Sutton’s Almost Live features a who’s who in the world of modern day Blue and Nugrass: Wunderkind mandolin player Chris Thile, veterans Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan on dobro and fiddle respectively, the ever explosive Sam Bush, banjoist Bela Fleck, and mandolin player Tim O’Brien are but some of the big names listed on the credits to Sutton’s latest outing, which finds the artists at a relaxed and easy pace, but never lazy or lethargic.
That Almost Live’s impressive guest list never once comes across as pretentious, smug, or exclusive is a miracle in and of itself, but it’s more than a warm hug. It’s a collection of songs that are true to the artist’s and his friends’ hearts and the playing and performing of each track makes that crystal clear. Sutton seems so excited about the album that he’s included a small explanation for each song inclusion as well as bit of a history of the session. Not that any explanation is needed for why these great pickers got together.
“Morning Top” kicks off the record with a relaxed vibe: Douglas’ dobro provides a framework for Duncan’s fiddle before Fleck’s banjo starts plucking away note by note. The opening track never explodes in the way so many Nickel Creek songs brilliantly do. Instead, the track keeps its pace until the end, setting the precedent for the record: Cool, calm and laid back. “Big Island Hornpipe” follows a similar structure, albeit with a different set of players.
Despite the overall tone of the album, there are some tracks that bring surprise. When Sutton strips down the number of players, as on “Rye Straw Suite” ,which features just himself and Bela Fleck, Sutton’s individual talent really shines. The same could be said of the melancholy yet spiritual “Dark Island”, where Sutton and Ross Barrenberg lay it bare with two guitars.
Tim O’Brien and Sutton provide spirited vocal performances that perfectly suit the banjo riff on “Church Street Blues” whereas “Le Pont De La Moustache” is pitched somewhere between a typical swing song and a feisty bluegrass rave up without ever sounding forced or cloying.
Interestingly enough, the most electrifying tunes come at the end of the record. “Wonder Valley Girls”, “Kitchen Girl”, and especially closing number “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar”, flat out smolder. The last of the trio is little more than Chris Thile and Bryan Sutton doing what they do best and proving why they should never lay down their respected instruments despite the song’s lyrics.
Almost Live rarely comes off as a real record, in the traditional sense that there’s something giving it coherence. Instead, the album comes across as a collection of songs Sutton and friends put together, so while it may lack a certain quality that defines a “great” record from a “good” record, there’s no reason each track shouldn’t be valued for its individual merit and entertainment.