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Thursday, May 27, 2004

In your ear - Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, Doc and Merle Watson,

In Your Ear

By Kevin Wood/Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Jerry Garcia and David Grisman
Been All Around This World
Vivid, 2,625 yen

When people talk about Jerry Garcia it is usually in the context of the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene and his long strange trip with the Grateful Dead. He's probably more famous as a countercultural icon than as a musician. But forget everything you think you know about Garcia and lend an ear to Been All Around This World and you will hear a master folk singer and acoustic guitar picker par excellence.

The king of the 20-minute psychedelic electric guitar solo got his start playing the squarest of traditional folk and bluegrass songs on banjo and guitar in the very early 1960s and never really left it behind, working on and off over the years with his longtime partner in acoustic wizardry, mandolin virtuoso David Grisman.

In the end it's Grisman we have to thank for Been All Around This World. The creator of the bluegrass-jazz fusion dubbed "dawg music" had the presence of mind to insist on recording hours of his informal jams with Garcia in the early '90s, resulting in a number of brilliant collaborative albums that include So What, Shady Grove and The Pizza Tapes (with guitarist Tony Rice). Grisman hints in the liner notes that Been All Around This World is likely to be the last in the series, but it is hardly the bottom of the barrel.

The disc leans heavily on country and bluegrass repertoire with songs by Merle Travis, Mel Tillis, George Jones, and Jimmie Rogers, with a few odd digressions--notably Jimmie Cliff's "Sitting Here in Limbo" and James Brown's "I'll Go Crazy." The performances are built around Garcia's heartfelt, rough-hewn tenor and Grisman's expressive mandolin breaks and fills. The tempos are mostly relaxed, and the two talented players stretch out for long, melodic solos that lack the demonic intensity of some of their other duets, but are no less tasty for the laid-back, sunny, Sunday afternoon feel. The sessions were some of Garcia's last, and while he strains to pull off the vocals on the aforementioned James Brown number, he's at his plaintive best on "Limbo" and Travis's "Dark as a Dungeon."

All in all an excellent introduction for those new to bluegrass and the acoustic phenomenon of Garcia and Grisman.

Doc and Merle Watson
Sittin' Here Pickin' the Blues
Rounder, 2,519 yen

A remastered reissue of Doc and Merle's 1985 album Pickin' the Blues with an additional eight tracks from their early '80s recordings for Flying Fish Records. Arthel "Doc" Watson and Merle Watson were undeniably the finest father-son team in music--bluegrass or otherwise. Doc's high-speed flatpicking and unadorned, warm baritone paired with son Merle's fluid slide and finger-style guitar were a potent combination unmatched since Merle's 1985 death in a tractor accident.

Even for folk and bluegrass, this music is so down-from-the-mountains square it has corners. However, even as cornpone as some of the songs may be, these performances by two monster guitarists render them indisputably hip. Merle's slide playing on "Taking to Casey" will make any rock fan forget Duane Allman's name.

In addition to the guitar pyrotechnics, the other real joy on this album is Doc Watson's simple, straightahead singing. His cover of "Stormy Weather" is the perfect antidote for the stale vocal gymnastics of the so-called pop divas, and his "How Long Blues" and "Honey Babe Blues" prove that a white man can sing the blues without trying to sound black and still have plenty of soul. Guest appearances by the likes of star blues harp player Charlie Musselwhite and bluegrass stringman Sam Bush provide the last unneeded push into the stratosphere of must-have recordings.

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