This was a hard review to write, coming as it does on the heels of the death of bluegrass giant John Duffey. For twenty-five years now, the Seldom Scene has set a standard for taste, drive and imagination that few bands can even imagine. Surprisingly, in spite of having been together longer than Flatt & Scruggs, the Scene still seem to be one of the new bands in bluegrass.
Following the departure of Mike Auldridge, T. Michael Coleman and Moondie Klein just over a year ago, Duffey and banjo player Ben Eldridge re-assembled the band by bringing in bass wizard Ronnie Simpkins, Paul Adkins alumnus and Auldridge protégé Fred Travers and Dudley Connell, one of the strongest and most identifiable lead singers and rhythm guitar players in bluegrass music today.
The question was, how would the new pieces fit together? Connell and Duffey seemed, at first, an odd pairing. But two factors obviously worked in the band's favor. In spite of their reputation as innovators in contemporary bluegrass, Duffey and Eldridge carry a deep love and respect for the traditional sound - you have to be a great traditional bluegrass band before you can be a great progressive bluegrass band. That love and respect meshed perfectly with Connell's. And Connell's music has matured and broadened over the years with the Johnson Mountain Boys, gaining a modern feeling and sound, at once fresh and still traditional. The result for the Seldom Scene in 1996 was that the sum was greater than the parts, delighting and amazing fans with how quickly and naturally all of the pieces fit together.
Every release by the Seldom Scene is a special event and, in light of the changes over the past year, Dream Scene is particularly important. In my opinion, this is the strongest Seldom Scene recording since my personal favorite, The New Seldom Scene Album from 1976. Eldridge and Duffey's playing have been rejuvenated, stronger and more animated than they'd been in years and Dream Scene indisputably carries all the stamps of the Seldom Scene - superb material, stunning vocals, great picking and breath-taking arrangements.
Going Up On the Mountain is quartet which shows the fine blend of the voices, new and old, set off by a slick key change in Travers' dobro break, which pushes Duffey's tenor part into the stratosphere. The mournful Willie Roy could have been on any of the previous Scene recordings, so tight is the trio with Duffey singing the lead. Tulsa Chili Bop is a Latin-flavored instrumental featuring some excellent, imaginative dobro work by Fred Travers.
Duffey, Connell and Travers handle the bulk of the vocals, and one of the strengths of this edition of the band is that all three can sing any of the vocal parts. Paul Kennerly's When I Get My Rewards and The Little Sparrow (Fair and Tender Ladies) are trademark Seldom Scene trios, the latter set off by Traver's haunting dobro and Duffey's melodic mandolin fills and swapping lead parts between Duffey and Travers, culminating in one of their patented, choral finishes. The Boatman has an eerie similarity to Duffey's version of The Traveler back when he was with the Country Gentlemen. Connell resurrects Blue Diamond from the Johnson Mountain Boys repertoire, done this time as a trio instead of a solo number.
The surprise (and highlight) of the recording is Connell's You Don't Know The Shape I'm In. If anyone doubted how Dudley would fit into the Scene, this should answer all the questions. This soul-searching, heart-broken anthem to loneliness is destined to be an instantly-identifiable, Seldom Scene classic.
Over the years, the Scene have pulled songs from an amazing variety of sources - Small Exception of Me from Dean Martin, Walk Through This World With Me from George Jones, even Chim-Chim-Cher-Ee and the Hail To The Redskins, but none define the risks and sideways outlook on bluegrass interpretation of the band as much as their ventures into classic rock-and-roll. Songs like I Know You Rider, and Lay Down Sally walk that fine line between parody and showcase jam. Dream Scene adds the Creedence Clearwater Revival's classic Bad Moon Rising, masterfully done here as a hard-driving, straight bluegrass trio.
Though Dream Scene marks the sad passing of John Duffey, it shows that he left us while still at the peak of his long and impressive career. Part of his legacy, the Seldom Scene, is more than just a bluegrass band. They have a unique way of blending talents and approaching bluegrass music that keeps it dynamic and alive, always growing as it incorporates new influences and sounds. Dream Scene also shows that the Scene's music transcends any particular version of the band. Bluegrass fans everywhere should look forward to them carrying on the tradition. The sound of the Scene is in capable hands.