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Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper

On Down the Line – 2014 (Compass)

Reviewed by Donald Teplyske

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Unlike previous Flamekeeper releases, there are few bluegrass household names associated with "On Down the Line." Only co-producer Jeff White has been with Michael Cleveland since the 2002 Rounder Records debut that gave Cleveland's band its name. "On Down the Line's" personnel reflects an evolving band that has solidified over three years. Glenn Gibson (banjo and reso) has been with Cleveland for three years, while both Tyler Griffith (bass) and Nathan Livers (mandolin) signed on soon after. Lead vocalist and guitarist Josh Richards joined up more than a year ago, and with this final component in place Flamekeeper headed to the studio to record the 14 tracks that comprise the sparkling little album.

Reflecting positive, tight chemistry honed by road dates, this edition of Flamekeeper may not have the curb appeal of previous line-ups, but it doesn't take too long to realize this group has the chops to stand with the best bluegrass offers.

A traditionalist at heart, Cleveland maintains the fiddle as the core of the group with each number colored by the feeling, tone and most often the energy emerging from his instrument. The album sounds fresh and invigorating, despite - or perhaps, because - every song sounds like a familiar bluegrass standard. The pace is decidedly up-tempo with only a few songs offering slower, modulated pacing.

Those who appreciate songs with a thread of narrative are likely to enjoy "The Garden Wall" and "That Ol' Train" while "Johnny Thompson" is yet another fella who can't handle betrayal without resorting to firearms.

Three instrumentals are featured with a terrific rendition of "Jack O' Diamonds" being especially impressive. One wonders at the inclusion of "The Orange Blossom Special" until considering this venerable warhorse is likely Cleveland's most requested song. Played as skilfully as it is here - with Griffith's chugging bass propelling the tune while Cleveland and Gibson provide the fire and smoke - one recognizes the wisdom of the decision.

Several songs have a country-bluegrass hybrid sound, and these appear to ideally suit Richards' easy vocal style. On "The Sunny Side of Town," Richards is augmented by harmony from long-time Cleveland friend (and former boss) Dale Ann Bradley. "Just Call Me Crazy" is more up-tempo, but has a similar country foundation while the most surprising selection may be the lead track, "Too Late For Goodbyes." Flamekeeper scourers the gloss from this forgettable Julian Lennon song to reveal an energetic hurtin' song with an interesting melody; this is a true Flamekeeper showcase!

The highlight is a take on Benny Martin's "Me and My Fiddle." While raised on the music of several generations of bluegrass and old-time fiddlers, Cleveland's playing most often reveals Martin's influence. First recorded on his 1998 debut, "Sawing on the 'C' String," this rendition perhaps speaks to the renewal of spirit this current Flamekeeper assemblage brings to his music. "On Down the Line" clearly shows that Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper are very much still in business.