The sadness of the loss of John Hartford last year is made all the more acute by this second posthumous release. It follows the last album he recorded before his death, Hamilton Ironworks, a loving tribute to the music that shaped him, in which his reminiscences were interwoven with the playing.
Steam Powered Aereo-Takes is a dazzling and unexpected gift from the past. As the title indicates, this set of eighteen songs features outtakes, demos, and alternate versions from Hartford’s groundbreaking 1971 album Aereo-Plain. These recordings all transpired after Hartford returned to Nashville from California, where he’d lived for a time.
The quartet, which came to be known as the Aereoplane Band, included Norman Blake (guitar and mandolin), Tut Taylor (dobro and mandolin), and Vassar Clements (fiddle). Some tracks also feature Randy Scruggs on bass.
These sessions were David Bromberg’s first attempt at producing, and he did well by following Hartford’s one directive to “let the tapes roll, we don’t want to hear playbacks until you’ve put the master together.” While they did do some listening before final selections were made for the album, tapes indeed rolled, capturing an exhilarating combo discovering their interconnecting language and the heart of each song.
Hartford’s gorgeous instrumental, “Presbyterian Guitar”, shows the creative process in action. The Aereo-Plain version consists of just Hartford’s guitar with understated support from Scruggs’ bass. Originally it was to have included Clements on viola and Taylor on mandola, but that evolved into the version heard here, with a trio of mandolins (played by the other band members) joining the bass and guitar. This was abandoned when it was decided that the mandolins were not “Presbyterian” enough; a string trio was then proposed, but that never transpired.
The band’s sheer delight in playing together is in evidence throughout; some songs are frameworks for jams, while others are beautifully jeweled compositions. The final two selections are from early 1972 and were not part of the Aereo-Plain sessions. The same quartet recorded what was to have been a single, though it was never released.
The band splintered less than half a year after the classic album appeared. Taylor and Clements drifted away, while Hartford and Blake went on to record Morning Bugle (with jazz bassist Dave Holland) and hit the road as a duo.