Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band "Legacy" (Compass Records, 2010)
Newgrass legend comes full circle
Peter Rowan is undoubtedly one of the most interesting musicians working in bluegrass today. After starting his career over forty years ago as one of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, he has since dabbled in psychedelia with Earth Opera, helped shape West Coast country-rock with Seatrain and The Rowans, provided New Riders of the Purple Sage with that enduring hippie anthem, 'Panama Red', and remained constantly at the vanguard of progressive bluegrass music, leading bands which have included the likes of Jerry Garcia, Clarence White, Sam Bush, David Grisman, Jerry Douglas, Vassar Clements and Tony Rice. A number of his songs have gone on to become modern standards, whilst he has been a tireless experimenter, fusing bluegrass with wider influences such as Tex-Mex or reggae and delivering lyrics inspired by Native American and Buddhist spirituality.
His new album, 'Legacy', advertises itself as a return to his roots. Whilst to the untrained ear, Rowan seems to have rarely diverged from the bluegrass sound over the last twenty-five years, the purist would disagree and certainly the strict adherence here to traditional structures and lyrical concerns represents something of a departure for the songwriter. However, it’s clear that he can be every bit as melodically and thematically compelling within such confines as he can when exploring new territory. A couple of tracks feel slightly underwritten such as 'The Raven' but many have the feel of authentic bluegrass standards, from rambunctious numbers such as 'The Family Demon' and 'Turn the Other Cheek' to the moving melody of 'The Night Prayer'.
Despite the album being credited to the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band rather than Rowan alone, his glorious voice is the focal point of the album. For in addition to being a songwriter of some repute, he’s blessed with one of the most distinctive timbres in the genre and although he’s now in his late sixties, that haunting tenor remains undiminished. It’s an evocative sound, simultaneously both earthy and ethereal, conjuring up images of a breeze rustling through the bulrushes or wisps of cloud hanging from pine-clad peaks. His vocals are ably supported by his new outfit, whose harmony work on 'God’s Own Child' or Carter Stanley’s 'Let Me Walk Lord By Your Side' invest those songs with their full spiritual weight.
And there is a distinctly sacred quality to many of the songs. The traditionalism of the project guarantees a predominantly Christian tone, but Rowan hits just the right note here. Capturing the guileless ebullience of the Carter Family or the Stanley Brothers rather than the calculated god-bothering which taints too much contemporary bluegrass. However, despite this emphasis, Rowan’s theological universalism still creeps in. 'Jailer, Jailer' clearly takes a shot at the narrow-mindedness of monotheist proselytism, whilst the album closes with 'Across the Rolling Hills', which incorporates the Padmasambhava manta. This may be a trick he’s used before (on the song 'Vulture Peak') but like the rest of this album, it’s still as powerful as anything he’s done.
Date review added: Sunday, September 26, 2010
Reviewer: Kai Roberts
Related web link: Artist's website