Vassar Clements – Livin’ with the Blues
Those familiar with Gatemouth Brown or black string bands such as the Mississippi Sheiks will recognize this album’s concept. Though he has never recorded an all-out blues album and is largely known for his hillbilly jazz workouts, Clements, like every country or bluegrass fiddler worth his or her rosin, cut his teeth on blues structures and has never lost the blues feel, even as his own style has spiraled off.
Split between instrumentals and vocal numbers (with Maria Muldaur, Elvin Bishop, Roy Rogers and Bobby Cochran all stepping up to the mike), Livin’ With The Blues covers considerable stylistic ground, including rag-timey jaunts, piano boogies, straight Chicago-style blues, contemporary funkified grooves, and lots of acoustic country blues. On those spare numbers, especially the duet with Bob Brozman on Skip James’ “Cypress Grove” and the slinky prowl with Rogers on Robert Johnson’s “Phonograph Blues”, you can hear more than Clements’ virtuosity. The strongest cuts illustrate his instinct and anticipation, as he gives and takes rapid-fire cues from the other players.
Producer David Grisman (who, surprisingly, never joins in on mandolin) has assembled more than competent musicians, but the intense, playful complexity of Clements’ fiddle work tends to dissipate as the ensemble size increases. He can more than hold his own with a full-on jam, but he doesn’t need to. There’s more blues power in the way he deftly echoes one of Muldaur’s moans or revives the soul of a traditional bluegrass number such as “Rube’s Blues” with one wild, slurry fiddle break.