Vassar Clements - violin, vocals; Jackie Garrett - piano, vocals; Jim Murphy - pedal steel guitar, dobro, vocals; Eddie Debruhl - bass, vocals; Brian Cole - drums
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 University of New Hampshire in 1976, is a fine early example of the Vassar Clements Band experience, combining jazz with country, rock with bluegrass, and little of everything else in between. The diversity of this set is highly impressive, with a stellar selection of material spanning decades of Clements's musical interests. Traditional bluegrass is represented early in the set by the likes of "Rocky Top" and one of his Clements own signature songs, "Lonesome Fiddle Blues." However, it is the next two numbers that best represent the genre and display Clements gift for modernizing vintage songs. "It's Mighty Dark" dates back to Flatt & Scruggs tenure with the great Bill Monroe and was a highlight of the Sessions album that had been released (featuring Vassar) the previous year. Next up is "Listen To The Mockingbird," a song that according to Vassar, is older than "Orange Blossom Special." They humorously announce that this song is Throckmorton's favorite vocal. (Lest the listener be confused by this, Throckmorton is the name of Vassar's fiddle.) On all four of these opening numbers, Vassar and company bring classic bluegrass arrangements into a modern context with great flare and style.
Next up is a fine take of "2AM," an original composition featured on the group's most recent album. This is a fine display of the instrumental virtuosity and cohesiveness of the group. This is followed by a medley of Bob Willis & The Texas Playboys classics, with only "Faded Love" captured before the tape stock ran out. When the recording resumes, they deliver an utterly unique and highly improvised interpretation of the Band's classic, "Rag Mama Rag," which raises the overall intensity level up a notch, followed by an even more impressive take on "Oshkosh," another Vassar original that showcases the expressiveness of his astounding fiddle technique.
One of the most high energy numbers is reserved for the tail end of the show and that is "Handpicked." This song was originally featured on Allman Brother Dickey Betts' first solo album, Highway Call, which prominently featured Vassar. Here it is a tour-de-force performance that begins humorously, with a false start on "Waltzing Matilda," before launching into a swinging jam fest. Here the entire band gets a chance to flex their improvisational muscles, taking the listener on a thoroughly engaging ride. The ultimate crowd-pleasers are saved for last 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 dazzles all listeners with a rip-roaring take on "Orange Blossom Special."
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.