Vassar Clements - violin, vocals; Jackie Garrett - piano, vocals; Jim Murphy - pedal steel guitar, dobro; Eddie Debruhl - bass, vocals; Brian Cole - drums; John ??? - banjo, vocals
Vassar Clements, a self-taught musician whose skills were impressive enough to attract the attention of Bill Monroe, first appeared alongside the bluegrass giant on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in 1949, recording his first session with Monroe the following year. Initially establishing his reputation as a member of Monroe's 1950s band, Vassar Clements soon became one of the most distinctive, inventive, and popular fiddlers in bluegrass music. Over the next four decades, Clements distinguished himself by incorporating a number of different genres into his style, never limiting himself to traditional bluegrass. Big band and swing music were strong influences and this diversity and virtuosity led to him becoming a highly sought-after session musician, playing with artists as diverse as Hank Williams, Paul McCartney, Gordon Lightfoot, Vince Gill, and Bonnie Raitt. In 1972 Clements was featured on The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's hit album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which helped establish him as a country and bluegrass star. The following year, he teamed up with Peter Rowan, David Grisman and Jerry Garcia in the massively popular Old & In The Way. The popularity of these recordings led to his first solo album, Crossing the Catskills, on Rounder Records, and Clements began touring the festival and college circuits with his own band shortly thereafter, taking his listeners on an exploratory journey through his past, present and future.
This performance, recorded at the State University of New York in New Paltz in 1976, is a fine early example of the Vassar Clements Band experience, combining jazz with country, rock with bluegrass, and a little bit of everything else in between. The diversity of this set is highly impressive, with a stellar selection of material spanning decades of Clements' musical interests. Traditional bluegrass is represented by the likes of Bill Monroe classics such as "Uncle Penn" (performed both as an instrumental variation and vocally) and "Good Old Pal," as well as more traditional-style songs like "Rocky Top," "Sitting On Top Of The World" and the Jimmy Driftwood classic, "Tennessee Stud." A few of the most popular Old & In The Way numbers are also represented, including Peter Rowan's "Panama Red," one of his Clements' own signature songs, "Lonesome Fiddle Blues" and the aforementioned "Uncle Penn." However, it is when Clements and the band venture outside the country/bluegrass genre that this concert is at its most compelling. Louie Jordan's "Barnyard Boogie" is a swinging example of Clements' jazzier style, and he also delivers utterly unique highly improvised interpretations of the Band's classic, "Rag Mama Rag" and a tour-de-force performance of Dickey Betts' Allman Brothers masterpiece, "Jessica," which showcases this group at its most adventurous.
The tail end of the show is reserved for the ultimate crowd-pleasers and Clements invites the audience to participate in the set-closing "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," which leaves them clamoring for more. When they return for an encore, Clements first dazzles all listeners with a rip-roaring take on "Orange Blossom Special," followed by the highly adventurous "Peking Fling" to end the night.
Throughout this set, Vassar Clements displays uninhibited and unabashed expression in his approach to music. In the tradition of all the great musical stylists, he rejects being categorized, performing with the depth of someone born to play. His solos soar in a manner reminiscent of the great Big Band soloists of decades prior. Equally well versed in bluegrass, country, rock, blues, jazz and swing, Vassar Clements was indeed the quintessential American musician.