[23 November 2009]
John Cowan may be best known for being the vocalist of the progressive bluegrass band the New Grass Revival. And with no disrespect to his formable bass skills, Cowan’s real selling point isn’t his well-to-do bass playing, but his force-of-nature voice that’s pitched somewhere between mountain yelp and soulful belt, equal parts warm and soothing and torrent and fierce. And, like any bluegrass singer, the years of experience hasn’t diminished Cowan’s extraordinary set of pipes, which are perfectly displayed on 8745 Feet Live at Telluride.
Cowan was wise in choosing his voice to be the main forefront of the set, and he’s given ample room to growl, shout, spit, and shoot off notes with ease, grace, and professionalism. And that may be the difficult part for some listeners to enjoy. While Cowan and gang have always leaned more toward the left in terms of their liberal approach to a conservative and traditional genre of music, rarely does anything on 8735 Feet ring as true as blue (or even nu) grass music. Aside from the wonderful and spirited “Road to Silverton”, much of the album is a hybrid of soul, gospel, and blues with an occasional bluegrass flourish.
Granted, it’s a form of music that Cowan sells with conviction and heft, and the singer feels completely comfortable behind the middle-of-the-road pop-rock number “Only the Night”, which in a just world would easily chart on a mainstream radio format. Just as he sells the jubilant “High Power Lines” and the lifting “Singing to the Scarecrow” with the right mix of force and nuance.
Cowan’s backing band also deserves full credit for making such an easy transition from tunes like the countrified bar-room dropout of “Witchita Way” all the way to the jazz-inflected “Dark as a Dungeon” without ever breaking time or sounding forced. The latter song may take over eight minutes to come full circle, but never does it feel bogged down or heavy-handed, and that can be credited to the tightness and coherence of the backing musicians.
If there’s anything to knock about 8735 Feet, it’s that the song selection isn’t always up to par with Cowan’s stellar voice and the focused backing band that help him flesh out the songs. “Let’s Make a Baby King” takes Cowan literally biting into his syllables in order to wash away the saccharine lyrics that plague the narrative, while “Last Summer Rose” never rises above the cliché built right into the title. It’s not that Cowan doesn’t salvage emotion from the weaker cuts—he completely does. It just would have just been nice to see him tackle something with a little more weight and gravity.
Still, given he has such a fine voice and a real knack for knowing how and when to use it, one can’t really knock Cowan, even when the songs aren’t up to par with his singing, and 8735 Feet does a wonderful job displaying one of the most unique and stirring voices of the bluegrass genre. But the album also reveals, with cuts like “Four Days of Rain”, that there’s no reason Cowan shouldn’t have a bigger audience outside the specific niche that has embraced him over the years.