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Well-oiled Blue Highway shows why

Museum of Our National Heritage, Lexington, Mass., January 10, 2009

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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After 15 years together with the same line-up, Blue Highway could be considered a very well oiled bluegrass machine. But that would sell the quintet way way short not only in putting out good material (they hit the Boston area for the first time in seven years, touring behind last year's very fine "Through the Window of a Train" CD), but also presenting it live.

What made Blue Highway stand out at the Boston Bluegrass Union show was the quality of the musicianship. You can start with Rob Ickes, who has won a record 10 International Bluegrass Music Association Dobro player of the year awards. Like his band mates, he is not showy when it comes off to displaying his musical talents. When a few songs were termed as being spooky, Ickes provided the necessary spooky musical effects. He is just a dynamo and easily displayed why he is one of the absolute few best at his instrument.

Tim Stafford was solid on acosutic guitar. Wayne Taylor proved particularly active on bass, an instrument sometimes under the radar screen in bluegrass. Shawn Lane may have started as a fiddle player in his youth, but he earned his keep today by showcasing his mandolin talents. Jason Burleson spiced the songs time and again with his banjo playing.

Blue Highway let the spotlight shine on the various members throughout the evening with no one particularly taking center stage. Vocal duties were spread around between Lane, who had most of the leads, Taylor and Stafford. It would be hard to argue that any of the three outshone the others. All were certainly capable of handling leads.

Perhaps the best vocal performance of the evening, however, was the sacred harp song, Wondrous Love uncovered by musicologist Alan Lomax in the 1940's. Burleson and Ickes left the stage. Lane started off on mandolin with Taylor then singing a capella before Lane and then Stafford joined in vocally. Finally from the wings, Burleson and then Ickes lent their voices to great effect.

Blue Highway played a number of requests (Pikeville Flood) along with songs from "Through the Window of a Train" and older material, including their most requested song Some Day and Clay and Ottie. Throwing in a few instrumentals provided additional musical diversity.

There was an easy going camaraderie throughout the 2-set, 95-minute show, which was not a surprise given how the line-up has remained intact for so long. But, fortunately, they weld their experience and abilities together to make for a good evening. This was not an over-the-top night of music, but a with a lot going on musically and good songs, Blue Highway is a veteran group with a lot left in the tank.