Roll My Blues Away
Tony FurtadoRounder CD 0343 Rounder Records
One Camp Street
Cambridge, MA 02140
A review written for the Folk and Music Exchange
I pulled into Asheville around 6:00 p.m. and checked into the hotel. As is my habit when hitting that pacific mountain town, I picked up a copy of the Mountain Xpress - the local rag - and hit Barley's for the best calzones and microbrewed beer this side of Knoxville. If you know calzones, they take some time, so I proceeded to peruse the Xpress and see what was up in town. The Xpress gave a nice write up to a guy who was a winner of the National Bluegrass Banjo championship and had decided to conquer the slide guitar in his spare time. He was touring his new album, Roll My Blues Away, with a pretty terrific little band, that is, people I had actually heard of unlike my knowledge of the man himself. That would be Tony Furtado. Now, sometimes I just get lucky - not often, but sometimes. At 8:00 p.m. I was about to get lucky.
For a meager $5, I was in for as good an experience as one can have in Asheville by one's lonesome. Tony proceeded to roll out the new album pretty much cut by cut, and I recount it to you now so that you can vicariously enjoy the experience on that disc. First, Furtado is everything that the Xpress indicated on banjo, the surprise, though, was that he had a command of the slide guitar that paralleled his mastery of the banjo. These days that is pretty darn rare. Listen to the opening cut Waterslide and you can hear him on both instruments. This original is a terrific and infectious number and draws the listener into the disc immediately. But what about the slide - did he really get it right? There are three ways of looking at this: first is listen to a couple of originals: Mudville, which is a low-down blues slide solo number, and The Stark Raven, an ensemble number with an energetic melody. There is no room to hide here. Both combine a very bluesy slide mode with some great fingerpicking. Very nice, but then he has the confidence to bring in a superb slide player, Kelly Joe Phelps, on two traditional numbers (Willow Tree and Boat's Up The River) and an original (Bolinas). He holds his own on both tunes. Phelps handles the only two vocal numbers (the traditional tunes) very nicely and in such a way that the vocals do not jar the feeling on the disc. Thirdly, he knows who to admire and how to admire them. Here I refer to The Ghost of Blind Willie Johnson. Blind Willie Johnson was, of course, one of the great slide gospel bluesmen - a rough and tumble guy who would have loved this number with some nice quotes thrown in for good measure. Blues and bluegrass are a great combo, but we are not done. Furtado has a way with melodies and treats us to two of the most beautiful and uncategorizable tunes with Song For Early, a real treat to listen to, and the aforementioned Bolinas with Phelps. Variety is not a problem here.
Joining Furtado, in addition to Phelps, is a couple of Grisman Quintet grads Mike Marshall (who also produced) and Todd Phillips and, from the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Stuart Duncan on fiddle. Tony Furtado shows remarkable and memorable diversity in his instrumentation and in his writing. This disc is worth more than a few listens. More than that, catch him live as he is an inveterate touring performer who attracts class players to his band. Maybe one of these days you will join me up in Asheville for one of his gigs. Only a dozen or so folks did so when I saw him last. Some days you just get lucky.
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Edited by Roberta B. Schwartz