Peter Rowan and Tony Rice
John Metzger's #19 album for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2007, Volume 14, #1
Written by John Metzger
The longer that they are around, the more that rock ínĎ roll artists seem to struggle to retain their relevance. Although some do recover late in life, their resurrection usually comes at the hand of learning to approach their art from a perspective that is more mature and refined. Performers from the folk-oriented side of the spectrum, however, typically fare worst in their youth when they lack the wisdom necessary for delivering their tales convincingly. Itís rare for artists to succeed in both realms, but through their collaborations with mandolinist David Grisman, the adventurous spirits of Peter Rowan and Tony Rice were able to blossom fully. After a stint with Bill Monroe, Rowan had united with Grisman to form Earth Opera in 1967, and the duo joined forces again during the early 1970s in the legendary bluegrass band Old & in the Way. Riceís progressive tendencies began to establish themselves when he was with The Bluegrass Alliance, and he further developed his boundary-pushing, genre-smashing ways as a member of the David Grisman Quintet.
Working within the same circles, it isnít surprising that Rowan and Rice had bumped into one another on countless occasions. Yet, they never had managed to find the time to make an album together. In 2004, however, everything changed when Rowan and Rice completed You Were There for Me. In what proved to be a smart move, neither musician had set lofty expectations for the endeavor. Instead, they took a low-key approach to the album, recording it in drips and drabs over the course of three years.
Rowan and Rice followed a completely different path for their sophomore outing Quartet. This time, the duo utilized the talents of bass player Bryn Davies and mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist, the other members of their touring band. All of the chemistry that was present in You Were There for Me is replicated on Quartet, of course, but the arrangements are more intricately layered and greatly improved. On an instrumental rendition of Shady Grove, for example, the songís melody effortlessly is tossed from one musician to the next, and with each iteration, it is bent and twisted in a manner that is more akin to jazz than bluegrass. Elsewhere, the ensemble transforms Patti Smithís country-oriented Trespasses into a back-porch waltz, while Todd Ponsí Guardian Angels carefully walks the line between dismal desperation and spiritual bliss.
In spite of the fact that each selection is delivered with impeccable precision, however, the pacing of Quartet is somewhat suspect. In truth, the album peaks early when the cohesion of its opening sequence ó which counters the lost hope of Dust Bowl Children with the bittersweet optimism of Townes Van Zandtís To Live Is to Fly only to plunge into the lonesome darkness of The Walls of Time ó outshines the setís less connected latter half. Granted, thereís an attempt to bring the collection to a rapturous conclusion, one which accepts death as a new beginning, but the bold re-imagining of Midnight Moonlight that serves as Quartetís striking centerpiece is a tough act to follow. For as many times as Rowan likely has performed the tune, he has found yet another fresh and vibrant perspective from which to deliver it. Yet, the long shadow that it casts is nearly impossible to escape. Even so, Quartet is a stunning endeavor, and although its flaws keep it from being a true masterpiece, it certainly ranks among the finest outings with which Rice and Rowan have been associated.
Of Further Interest...
Quartet is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box