The Bluegrass Special May 2011 Eclipse Review
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Warm, welcoming, buoyant are but a few of the attributes of Bill Emerson’s wonderful Eclipse, an inspired successor to last year’s Southern. Departing from Southern’s dependence on material mostly from outside sources and emphasis on vocal performances, Eclipse’s 14 songs are dominated by nine strong instrumentals penned by Emerson himself, whose sterling banjo work is energetically supported by Tom Adams on guitar, the impressive Jenny Leigh Obert on fiddle and Marshall Wilborn on bass with mandolin duties being evenly divided between pickin’ studs Jimmy Gaudreau and Chris Henry. Whereas Southern had its share of heartbreak songs, Eclipse accentuates the positive, right from the git-go with Emerson’s high flying, bouncy instrumental, “New San Juan,” an occasion for all the players to step in with singsong solos, at which Obert’s fiddling is most affecting in a song with a wide-open, joyous feel about it. The assembled players, led by Wilborn’s warm vocal (with harmony help by way of Lynn Morris), fairly sprint through the traditional “Jesse James,” with Gaudreau pitching in a couple of sparkling mandolin romps around Obert’s energetic fiddling in a sunnier version of this tall tale than Bruce Springsteen opted for on his Seeger Sessions album. As impressive as she is with a fiddle in hand, Obert has a mean way vocally with a kissoff song, as she demonstrates on her own “Don’t Come Around,” spitting out the lyrics’ harsh invective with the sort of verve and unforgiving attitude Rhonda Vincent has trademarked in her more spiteful musical moments (Obert’s strong mountain voice even bears some resemblance to Vincent’s), then underscoring her resolve with some heated fiddling along the way. The only other vocal on Eclipse comes near the end, as Tom Adams persuasively occupies the role of a “Poor Rebel Soldier” in the bustling traditional tune documenting a Confederate soldier’s eager anticipation of his return home to Tennessee, although he hints that he may never stop fighting.
Vintage Bill Emerson during his Country Gentleman days, performing the classic bluegrass version of ‘Fox On the Run.’ Emerson heard the original Manfred Mann single (written by Tony Hazzard), reconfigured it in a bluegrass arrangement and recorded it with Cliff Waldron before joining the Country Gentlemen.
Manfred Mann, ‘Fox On the Run,’ Tous En Scène (from France), September 5, 1969. Mike d’Abo on lead vocal.
Otherwise, Emerson leads the band through a variety of instrumental tunes of varying textures and moods. “Chilly Winds,” sparked by Emerson’s measured three-finger picking, Gaudreau’s high-steppin’ mandolin lines and Obert’s long, lean fiddle cries, is a bit more heated than the title suggests; the lilting beauty “Espanol” launches with an atmospheric Emerson banjo solo structured to conjure the proper south of the border mood while modulating between an easygoing groove and a rapidly rippling sortie ahead of a lovely, longing Chris Henry mandolin solo that Emerson picks up on and enhances when he returns; furious and burning, “No Steering—No Brakes” and “Dickenson County Breakdown,” coming on each other’s heels, hit that hard charging Flatt & Scruggs groove, keyed by Emerson’s rolling banjo, Obert’s red-hot fiddling and Gaudreau’s and Henry’s precision, lightning fast mandolin workouts, the latter especially standing out for holding his own and then some in a jaw dropping display of manual dexterity when he enters “Dickenson Country Breakdown.” Following Adams’s convincing portrayal-in-song of a Rebel soldier’s anticipated return home, Emerson leads the way in the high-energy strut of “The Grey Ghost” by interpolating a couple of bars of “Dixie” into his singsong soloing before ceding the spotlight to Henry and Obert, who follow Emerson’s lead in developing discursive variations on the melodic theme before handing it back to Emerson for a final, celebratory jaunt and another taste of “Dixie” before closing out matters. Southern was so on the mark that Emerson could be forgiven if Eclipse had not lived up to its predecessor’s high standard, but in fact the man and his mates have succeeded in taking a different route while honoring Southern’s infectious spirit. You get the feeling Bill Emerson’s onto something special here.—David McGee