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Drew Emmitt

Freedom Ride – 2002 (Compass)

Reviewed by Rick Bell

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CDs by Drew Emmitt

The lineup of special guests on Leftover Salmon frontman Drew Emmitt's solo project is a who's who of bluegrass pickers. So much so, Emmitt's talents are lost in the shuffle. John Cowan's soaring tenor completely dusts Emmitt's only-adequate voice, even though the ex-New Grass Revival lead singer contributes harmonies.

Emmitt's prowess on the mandolin is also overshadowed by the presence of Ronnie McCoury and Sam Bush, who is as distinctive a picker as is around today. Even Emmitt's songwriting pales when stacked against classics like Bob Dylan's "Tangled up in Blue" (Emmitt provides a nice read on it) and Peter Rowan's "Rainmaker," as Rowan guests on lead vocals.

It may be a reach to say Emmitt was overwhelmed by the presence of such heavy hitters, who also stand among his musical heroes. This is not a bad album, and in fact there are plenty of high points.

Unfortunately, few are delivered by the album's host. Emmitt's solo project is worlds away from the live album offered up by his entire band. Cowan sings backup on one cut, but make no mistake, Emmitt's in charge of this party. And it's a reflection of the jam band's philosophy - "Live loud, live rowdy, stay up late, make friends, make peace, make music."

Including songs from the likes of John Hartford and David Bromberg go a long way to making both music and friends. The musicianship is top-drawer as well. Keyboardist Bill McKay cuts loose on his own "Bill's Boogie," and Emmitt's string work is special. But a special nod goes to banjo player Mark Vann, who died of cancer in March at 39. One of the band's founders, Vann brought a unique style and sound to the band. His picking, which is all over the live album, will be sorely missed.

As much as the album is a dedication to Vann's musicianship and love for life, it's Leftover Salmon at its best - picking, singing - and picking some more - and just plain having fun.