Saturday, January 29, 2011

CD Review: Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen At Edwards Barn

One of the fixtures in my adult music-going life has been the duo of Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen. I have had the great opportunity to see these guys a number of times in a number of different venues, and there are a set of indelible memories in my head from the various shows.

Seeing them at the Bottom Line with Eric Lane and Paul Getto, we had sat through an amazing show and called them back to stage for an encore. Eric leans inward and says, "Wouldn't it be awesome if they played 'Eight Miles High' now?" A microsecond later, we heard "dum-de-duh-de-duh-duh" from Herb's guitar and went nuts.

In July 2000, they closed out the opening night of the short-lived Winterhawk 2000: Bluegrass and Beyond festival. Capping a day of music that had included Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, the John Cowan Band and Mary Gauthier, the band took the stage and launched into Chris's original "Like a Hurricane" with Chris on guitar, Herb on banjo, Jim Monahan on guitar and Bill Bryson on an acoustic bass guitar -- by the time we got to "Turn, Turn, Turn," Herb had traded in his banjo for a guitar, too, and as the stage lights played off the evening mist, those four guitar-shaped instruments on stage hit us with a wall of great sound.

There also was the time that Andy Bean and I saw them at B.B. King's in New York and someone requested that they play the Burrito Brothers' draft-dodging classic "My Uncle" and "play it for George W.!" To which Hillman responded, "Hey! I voted for him, and I support him." An awkward air descended on the New York crowd -- some of it even escaped with a hissing sound. And the less said about the disastrous final appearance of Rice, Rice, Hillman and Pedersen at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival (when the band was headlining the Saturday night show and the Rice brothers were mainlining booze) the better, but it certainly was memorable...

With the September 2010 release of At Edwards Barn on Rounder Records, it has become possible to relive many of the great concert memories in the comfort of my own living room. Recorded at their annual benefit for the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation of Santa Maria, California, and the Gobezie-Goshu Home for the Elderly in Adwa, Ethiopia, and featuring Bill Bryson on bass, Larry Park on guitar and David Mansfield on fiddle, this is a solid album from start to finish.

They start the disc off with the Stanley Brothers' "Going Up Home," allowing those Hillman-Pederson harmonies to welcome the listener to the show. The band jumps in on the chorus, but this one's really about the sining. It gives way to the energetic Desert Rose Band classic "Love Reunited," where the lingering harmony of the verse cuts quickly into "Don't walk away!," the opening line of the chorus. Then comes the big hit -- "Turn, Turn, Turn" -- with Hillman picking out the signature opening lick on his mandolin and then taking a nice little solo later on. The energy and singing are solid here, and it's tough to imagine not getting a big grin out of this recording.

"Eight Miles High," which comes later on the disc, is similarly well-executed: bass and guitar provide the well-known riff, a little fiddle flutter and mandolin sparkle eventually yield to the gorgeous harmonies of Hillman and Pedersen. David Mansfield plays some tasteful psychedelic notes on the fiddle here and there, and Hillman's mandolin chop keeps the song moving along.

From the Burritos' catalogue, we get solid versions of both "Wheels" and "Sin City." The Louvin Brothers' "If I Could Only Win Your Love" and Buck Owens' "Together Again" pay tribute to the duo's country progenitors.

One of my all-time favorite songs, Pedersen's "Wait a Minute" is maybe slightly besmirched by Herb getting testy about Chris's tuning while he introduces the song, which is then followed by a false start. I'm not entirely sure if I would have left all of that on the album, but I guess there's some reason to keep the live show together, warts and all. The actual execution of the song is right where I would want it to be though -- all of the beauty, all of the emotion, the great harmonies, the moving swoop on the chorus. The liner notes -- by James Rosen, whose credits for writing the notes are that he is a Fox News correspondnet and the author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate -- are maybe slightly besmirched by the description of the song as an "obscure country gem." Obscure? I'm not so sure about that...

The disc wraps up with the lovely "Heaven's Lullaby," sweetly played and sung, leaving the listener contented and looking forward to the next live encounter with Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen, which is now as close at hand as just hitting the play button again.

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