A review for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
By Henry Koretzky
On the day Bill Monroe died, I listened to my old vinyl recording of Mon's plaintive self-composed eulogy, "My Last Days on Earth." Then I turned on my CD player and popped in Pete Wernick and the Live Five's first complete recording, I TELL YOU WHAT!
No comparison, you say? But Monroe was nothing if not an innovator, merging elements of Celtic, old-time, country, gospel and blues into the unique musical fusion that became known as bluegrass. Wernick's '90s offshoot is something that he prefers to call "flexigrass"--a mixture of classic bluegrass-based banjo technique combined with the traditional jazz strains of clarinet and vibraphone, augmented by drums and electric bass.
The Live Five debuted on a handful of tracks from Wernick's previous solo release on Sugar Hill, ON A ROLL. I TELL YOU WHAT! represents this new unit's full-length recording debut. Nine of the thirteen tracks are Wernick originals, combining the improvisatory spirit of jazz, the twists and turns of funk and the solid drive of bluegrass into a distinctive style all its own.
The band's arranging skills are also prodigious, with tunes like Flatt and Scruggs' "Dear Ol' Dixie" and the Texas Playboys' "Jobob Rag" sounding at times like their roots are more from New Orleans than Kentucky or the Lone Star State. The Live Five's versions of other classic numbers such as Ralph Stanley's "Daybreak in Dixie" and the traditional fiddle tune "June Apple" show how comfortably this quintet can navigate different stylistic areas.
The leadership of five-string banjo ace Wernick and his excellent cadre of fellow musicians--Bill Pontarelli on clarinet, George Weber playing vibes, bassist Rich Moore and former Breakfast Special member Kris Ditson on drums--marks the Live Five as an innovative ensemble that is carving out some fascinating musical territory of its own. Call it flexigrass, dixiegrass, swingrass, whatever... It's not bluegrass, and it's hard to say what Monroe would have thought of it. But open-minded listeners looking for a lively and original collection of instrumental music drawn from the twin musical heritages of traditional jazz and bluegrass will love what they hear on I TELL YOU WHAT!
[Edited by: Shawn Linderman]
Copyright by Three Rivers Folklife Society, 1996.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission.