In Concert (Norman Blake & The Rising Fawn String Ensemble)

Norman Blake & The Rising Fawn String Ensemble
In Concert
Ramblin' 803 (Video, 60 minutes, color)

Over the past decade or so, Norman Blake's music has evolved into a unique form. I don't really want to try to classify it, but for those unfamiliar with the Rising Fawn String Ensemble, I guess I'd better give it a shot. J. D. Kleinke has referred to it as "chamberfolk," and that's pretty close. It truly does evoke the feel of chamber music. It also reminds one of old-timey music, except for Blake's turbocharged guitar work. It's not classic bluegrass - it doesn't have that pulsing rhythm, but the guitar and fiddle have that bluegrass feel to them.

What we have on this video is a concert from around 1980, the early days of Blake's explorations with the Rising Fawn String Ensemble. That looks about right, too, judging from the camera shots of the audience (did we really look like that?).

"Early days" is a relative term. I use it to refer to the Ensemble effort. Blake was already well established and respected in traditional music by this time and this is vintage Norman Blake. At center stage, flanked by Nancy Blake and James Bryan, his personality and pure love of playing dominate the show. His warm manner is reminiscent of Doc Watson, making you feel like the Ensemble is sitting in your living room though, for all the personality they project, his compatriots might as well be playing behind a curtain. Back in the mid-70s, I spent hours and hours listening to Blake's Whiskey Before Breakfast recording, working on licks and marvelling at his speed and clean lines. His breaks are linear, always remaining true to the melody. I find his playing somewhat predictable, without the surprises that we get from someone like Charles Sawtelle (of the late, lamented Hot Rize), but that's not necessarily bad. The performance features a satisfying number of fiddle tunes, as one might expect, with Blake swapping tasty licks with Bryan. And we get to hear him do a couple of his own tunes which are now firmly entrenched in the list of bluegrass standards - Ginseng Sullivan and Last Train From Poor Valley. It's a real treat to hear them done by the original writer. Ginseng Sullivan, in particular, is done as a beautiful, slow ballad. The tape ends with the spirited Comin' Down From Rising Fawn, which tacks some energy on the end of what otherwise could have been a sleepy performance. Norman also does some nice finger-picking on Cuckoo's Nest and plays a bit of twin fiddle with Bryan. Nancy plays a little mandolin, too, in a nice medley of McMichen's Reel and Jeff Davis. James Bryan's playing has a distinct old-timey feel, but with bluegrass tone and phrasing. He plays off Blake so well that one has to work hard to remember they hadn't been playing together all that long when this concert was recorded.

I confess to not being a big fan of the cello outside of classical music. I miss the full bottom of a bass driving the rhythm here. Nancy Blake's playing, at times, hints at what a bass fiddle would play, but the cello just doesn't have the depth to pull it off. Sometimes, the counterpoint to the fiddle and guitar melody works well, particularly in the slower tunes like Ginseng Sullivan.

However, the bowed cello can be distracting. Compared to the articulation of the notes from the guitar and fiddle, the bow sometimes makes the cello sound closer to feedback than anything else. The bow also evokes more volume from the instrument than the audio mix seems to be able to handle and, as a result, the cello sometimes dominates the music with a continual background drone.

There's nothing spectacular in the video work, though it's tasteful and well done. There are a few close-ups of Blake's hands at work, and that's always appreciated by the pickers who get these tapes. The stage itself is plain, all done in earthtones, as are the musicians. It gives the feel of a video daguerreotype. Maybe that's appropriate, as it documents Blake's early excursions into his own unique, modern view of traditional music.

Fans of Norman Blake and the Rising Fawn String Ensemble will certainly appreciate this look into the past, and I'd recommend it to anyone who appreciates clean, tasteful guitar work. But don't grab this video if you're searching for hard-driving bluegrass. That's not what this show was about.

(Shanachie Records, P. O. Box 802, Sparta, NJ 07871)
Published in Bluegrass Unlimited, September 1992. Used with permission.