After 30-plus years as a performer, producer and studio owner, Rudi Ekstein has developed tremendous instrumental chops and lasting friendships within the bluegrass genre. Both are evident on "Carolina Chimes," a 12-song collection of instrumental originals composed by Ekstein and featuring some of the best players in the business.
Jeff Autry (guitar), Mark Schatz (upright bass) and John Plotnik (banjo), all award-winning musicians, join Stuart Duncan, one of the most respected and decorated fiddle players in bluegrass music, as the core group of musicians supporting Ekstein for the bulk of the tracks. Collectively, these artists bring enough heat that you may need to step back from your speakers.
Although the album features a handful of slower numbers like the jaunty "Indian Rain," the languid "Jessy's Fancy" and the dramatic "Dixie Sunset," most of the tunes are scorchers that showcase Ekstein's impressive speed and dexterity on the mandolin, the tremendous picking powers of his supporting ensemble, and the musical dialog players of this caliber share when jamming together.
Barnburners like "Cornerstone," "Spikebuck," "All Night In Kentucky" "Bacon In The Pan," and "Carolina Chimes," all of which feature breakneck-pace playing and earworm melodies, are highlights.
Not to be overlooked, mid-tempo tracks like "Hoot Owl Hop" and "Flapjack" also shine. While they don't knock off your socks with blistering finger work, these tunes are playful, and both feature enough space to let Ekstein and the other instrumentalists take turns in the lead. Not as technically impressive, but enjoyable, nonetheless.
The real standout is also its dénouement. "Back Drag" is 110 seconds of pure power bluegrass joy. Following a few introductory galloping mandolin notes, Ekstein leads the ensemble through a full-on horse race of a track. Mandolin, fiddle and banjo all get brief feature sections as the listener breathlessly careens through the woods on this massive steed of a song. This is about as close as bluegrass music gets to thrash metal, making it one of the more invigorating tunes you are likely to come across in the genre.