Peter Rowan and Tony Rice: Quartet

Peter Rowan and Tony Rice

The new record from traditional and bluegrass music icons Peter Rowan and Tony Rice may bear their names in large script across the cover, but its title alludes to the collaborative nature of the project. The titular foursome has been touring together for more than two years, and the ease and cohesiveness of the performances on this record attest to the value of that experience. While Quartet‘s contrived cover image may suggest an air of stiffness and formality, the performances inside evince the four musicians’ natural chemistry and genuine fondness for the material. Such graceful music quickly banishes any unsavory first impressions and brings the listener back to record’s straightforward and entirely accurate title. By time the first notes of the opener “Dustbowl Children” have faded, it’s clear that this excellent record is the product of a unique four-part musical conversation, one in which generations come together over a shared appreciation of traditional music and a shared desire to explore the boundaries of that genre.

The element that makes this musical conversation so compelling is the manner in which the relative newcomers consistently push the revered icons. Sharon Gilchrist (mandolin and high baritone harmony vocals) and Bryn Davies (bass and tenor harmony vocals) provide ample evidence of their taste and musicianship, as they provide solid supporting parts and take creative solos when given the opportunity. The principals also turn in stellar performances on Quartet . Rice is widely regarded as one of the world’s finest flat-picked acoustic guitar players. His efforts here justify that status, and this is partially attributable to the manner in which the playing of Gilchrist and Davies consistently pushes him to explore the limits of his musical vision and dexterity. The newcomers challenge Rowan in a similar fashion: their forceful yet intuitive harmony vocals implore Rowan to sing his leads with authority and conviction. The old master rises to this challenge and his consistently strong lead vocals are one of Quartet‘s particular delights.

These relationships are evident on “Moonlight Midnight”, the record’s seven minute-plus standout track. The track begins and concludes with Rowan’s solid vocal, which is buffeted by sublime harmonies from Gilchrist and Davies. In between, a vigorous instrumental breakdown sees two impressive guitar solos unfold around an equally strong — and thematically consistent — effort from Gilchrist. Rice’s closing segment is particularly noteworthy, as it heads to the song’s outer limits before bringing it all back to Rowan for a rousing finish. The result is a breathless re-working of this old Rowan chestnut that wants for nothing in terms of imagination, skill, or heart.

Gilchrist and Davies’s knack for bringing out the best out of these two icons is re-affirmed by the manner in which the group effortlessly shifts gears to deliver an ethereal version of punk icon Patti Smith’s “Trespasses”. This graceful performance sees the roles reversed, as the instrumental parts seem to bob along on the current of the three voices. Rowan’s lead is particularly supple on this song, and Evans’s solo bass accompaniment during the final verse lends an additional aura of melancholia to this darker number.

It figures that this bunch would head straight out of that sad song and into an upbeat version of the Gregory-McAuliffe classic “Sunny Side of the Mountain”. Once again, Rowan’s vocal is strong and true. Here, he finishes his lines with a slightly yodel-like upturn. His judicious use of this inflection lends a delectable hint of that traditional high, lonesome sound to this and other tracks. This technique is most effective on the traditional numbers and somber narratives like “Dust Bowl Children” and “Cold Rain and Snow”.

While the three aforementioned tracks form the heart of Quartet, there truly is not a dud among the record’s eleven tracks. A reviewer in seeking praise-worthy tracks could just as easily single out the group’s contemplative take on Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live Is to Fly” or the rousing closer “Perfection”, with its galloping beat, fleet-fingered solos, and spirited vocals. In fact, each of the tracks provides ample evidence of the level of musicianship and chemistry involved in this collaborative effort. Taken in part or as a whole, Quartet represents the best of progressive traditional music. Young accompanists Gilchrist and Davies perfectly complement the icons and their superlative efforts exhort Rowan and Rice to explore their own limits in terms of creativity and dexterity. The result is an eminently listenable revelation: a record that stands up to the critical ear, but truly speaks to the tapping toe.

RATING 8 / 10
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