Sugar Hill Records, Inc.
P O Box 55300
Durham, NC 27717-5300
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Henry Koretzky
Life is full of strange and tragic twists, and the new release by the Seldom Scene, the DC-based bluegrass quintet, has a sad irony to it. DREAM SCENE was intended to debut a radically new line-up for the Scene, who've been thrilling audiences with their mix of haunting harmonies, outlandish covers, and raucous stage presence for close to twenty-five years. After the loss of three bandmates who had resigned to form the band Chesapeake, founding members John Duffey and Ben Eldridge regrouped with a dynamic new roster. DREAM SCENE was intended to be the unveiling of a fresh chapter in the life of this renowned unit. But the shocking death of mandolinist John Duffey due to heart failure at the age of 62 causes this disc to be seen as an epitaph as well as an inauguration.
By either standard, DREAM SCENE is a triumphant return to form by the Scene. Lead singer/guitarist Dudley Connell, who established his vocal chops during several years of performances and recordings with the Johnson Mountain Boys, proves himself a worthy heir to the tradition established by former Scene singers John Starling, Phil Rosenthal, and Lou Reid. This recording includes his expressive delivery of the Civil War lament "Dry Run Creek" and a powerful remake of the Jean Ritchie song "Blue Diamond," which he'd previously recorded with the JMB. Dobroist Fred Travers, most recently with the Gary Ferguson Band, had worshipped at the altar of "his legendship" Mike Auldridge for many years. He captures the keening dobro sound that was such a hallmark of the Scene's sound, and even adds his smooth lead vocals to "Love of the Mountains." Ronnie Simpkins, who had held the bass chair for so many years with the Tony Rice Unit, anchors the powerful rhythms of the band very well, and even gets a chance to shine on the disc's sole instrumental number, Ron Pennington's "Tulsa Chili Bop."
But it's the contributions of stalwarts Duffey and Eldridge that most define the signature sound of this band. Eldridge, as usual, brings his impeccably solid and tasteful banjo playing to the mix, supplying the appropriate fills and solos to a range of tunes that runs the gamut from breakneck bluegrass to sixties revivalism ("Bad Moon Rising.") And, what can you say, Duffey is Duffey. He always loved emoting on tear-jerker songs, as he does here on the sentimental ballad "Willie Roy," and there's also his wonderfully haunting lead vocal on "The Boatman." DREAM SCENE also features plenty of his trademark tenor harmonies, which shine especially bright on "Blue Diamond" and "Going Up on the Mountain."
The good news is that the Seldom Scene plan to carry on with former guitarist Lou Reid in the mandolin chair. But since John Duffey was as irreplaceable a personality as one could imagine in the world of bluegrass, DREAM SCENE becomes an especially precious document of this all too short-lived cast. Whether you're a veteran follower of the Scene, or one who's discovering their music for the first time, DREAM SCENE contains plenty of the magic that continues to make this group so special.
Edited by Shawn Linderman