Young fiddle virtuoso is joined by a who’s who of contemporary acoustic string band music on his Compass Records debut.
September 14, 2014
The first solo release on Compass Records by Michael Barnett, who has played fiddle with the David Grisman Quintet, Jesse McReynolds and the Virginia Boys, Tony Trischka, and the Deadly Gentlemen, among others, reflects the eclectic virtuosity and open-minded approach to roots string band music that is a hallmark of the fiddle camps he frequented as a teenage fiddle phenom. Mark O’Connor’s String Conference, Christian Howes Creative String Camp, and the Mt. Shasta Music Camp expose young musicians to a variety of styles, and Barnett’s music reflects this. In an era when you can sample most any kind of music you want via Spotify, YouTube, or iTunes, such a Catholic taste is natural. This new generation of string wizards is limited only by its imagination, and Barnett’s album is a great example/sampler of the kind of voracious virtuosity that can be heard in players like Tristan Clarridge, Sarah Jarosz, and Brittany Haas.
While the songs on One Song Romance (all of which were written by Barnett) jump from style to style willy nilly, the album is not a pastiche. Nickel Creek, Tim O’Brien, Punch Brothers, Jarosz, and Crooked Still may be the most obvious antecedents, but there is a long tradition of such variety. If you’ve ever heard a Doc Watson concert or recording, you know what I mean. Watson had no problem navigating traditional songs, pop standards, fiddle tunes, blues, and a variety of instrumental approaches, and usually mixed them liberally in a set. As do Barnett and his recording crew here, which includes members of most of the bands mentioned: Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still), O’Brien, three fifths of Punch Brothers, the Deadly Gentlemen, etc.
The album leads off with “It’ll Be Alright,” sung by the fiddler and O’Donovan, with complex instrumental textures reminiscent of Punch Brothers or the Bee Eaters and a stunning solo by Barnett. The new old-timey song “Change Her Mind” is sung by O’Brien and O’Donovan and supported by a potent Punch Brothers rhythm section of Paul Kowert (bass), Chris Eldridge (guitar), and Noam Pikelny (banjo), with Barnett’s fiddle launching into an infectious old-time rideout. The instrumental “Hopped the Train” begins with a fiddle part that echoes the previous two songs, with a couple of wide harmonic detours, giving Pikelny, Eldridge, and mandolinist Dominick Leslie a chance to stretch out. At one point, Barnett’s solo sounds like Stuart Duncan stealing Billy Contreras licks. “It Wasn’t Meant to Be That Way” slows things down with a jazzy waltz that might sound like a Nickel Creek ripoff if Nickel Creek’s influence hadn’t become so pervasive among Barnett’s generation as to become yet another style ripe for cultivating in itself. “Dig Dig Dig” is reminiscent of Barnett’s tenure with the Deadly Gentlemen. It’s a “novelty” number sung by mad cellist Rushad Eggleston and featuring humor-laden, swingin’ solos from guitarist David Grier and mandolinist Leslie. “Bottom of the Barrel” continues the smokin’ schizophrenic swing with a Billy Contreras-style head, a viciously inventive solo from Grier, and some newgrassy mandolin licks from Leslie, before Barnett takes it out with a solo that sounds like Johnny Gimble on acid. “New Barnes,” ostensibly a bluegrass instrumental, is a twisty old-time fiddle tune of the kind Brittany Haas is known for and features bass and octave mandolin solos.
Barnett saves the title tune of his delightful debut for last. A sweet, melancholy waltz featuring O’Donovan’s lead vocal, “One Song Romance” may describe a flirtation that lasts for just one dance, but that’s unlikely to be the extent of the relationship that listeners will have with Barnett’s multifarious recording. Although you may take a shine to one song or tune for awhile, the variety will undoubtedly please even the most capricious open-eared fans of acoustic music. Compass Records (compassrecords.com)
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