[28 August 2008]
When attempting to pay homage to a 20-year span of time on the road, it’s best to bring all your friends along. Drew Emmitt, the lead singer and mandolin player from the great ‘90s (and ‘00s) jam band Leftover Salmon, has assembled an all-star bluegrass guest list for his album of road tales and triumphs. Long Road, his third solo release, features musicians from the Infamous String Dusters, the String Cheese Incident, Alison Brown (Allison Krauss), John Cowan (Sam Bush, New Grass Revival), Stuart Duncan (Dolly Partin, George Strait), Ronnie McCoury (Del’s son), Reese Wynans (Stevie Ray Vaughan) and the former drummer for Leftover Salmon, Jeff Sipe (Aquarium Rescue Unit). Recruiting some of the greats in today’s bluegrass scene reiterates the notion of collaboration that usually accompanies the road.
Long Road pays respect to Emmitt’s 25 years on the road with allegorical tunes made for endless summer days and warm summer nights. Fluid bluegrass banjo picking by Chris Pandolfini and the seamless mandolin background instrumentation and solos by Emmitt give the compositions layer after layer of thick, priceless twang.
Among the eight original songs (some of which are co-written with Cowan or Jim Lauderdale) are three covers. While some might question the decision to include Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home”, the theme certainly fits the rest of the album. Its reggae undertones are echoed a couple tracks later with Emmitt’s “Beat of the World”. The wah-heavy guitar chks oversimplify the jamming springboard, but the high-paced record also might beg for some relaxed tracks like these. The other two cover songs better fit the rugged Southern rocker seasoned with road experience. Van Morrison’s “Gypsy in My Soul” is a soulful, calypso-drenched bluegrass ballad. The Marshall Tucker Band’s “Take the Highway” offers a better jumping point for bluegrass-backed jam rock. Tyler Grant’s electric slide guitar solo offers the perfect building and release of tension, and then Emmitt enters on electric guitar. The soloists converge into a “Layla”-esque moment of Southern rock bliss. Stuart Duncan contrasts his sound with each soloist in a stellar combination of strings.
Emmitt’s new compositions sound like time-treasured bluegrass classics, as track after track has effortless quick-picking and fiddle-charged power-grass. The title track sets its pace on high after an initial mandolin-led warm up. “Lord you know I’ve been so many places / At least I know I have a longer view,” begin Emmitt’s smooth, twanged vocals. The frenetic pace alone is impressive. Each string soloist brings with him a precise, fervent plucking, bowing, or strumming. As the windup for the refrain hits, four-part vocal harmonies churn out the catchy line, “On this long road back to you”. The final song, “River’s Risin’”, is another original fast-grass number that makes use of Emmitt’s blending vocal abilities. The man’s voice melts with others’ well. After about four minutes of a straight-forward grass jam laced with foreboding, funk-infused Hammond B3 organ, the instruments slyly wind down, suggesting the end of the song and album. Pandolfini gears his banjo into double time for a bluegrass breakdown of sorts. As though with a second, fuller wind, the band rushes into the energetic second half of the song. Before the B3 signals a fading out, a final “risin’” lingers just long enough on the sound palate. Although the CD’s road has run its course, Emmitt’s road is clearly hitting its stride.