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 Keene State College 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 and the musicianship nothing less than stellar. On this particular night, there is a heavy emphasis on the improvisational facet of this remarkable band and their adventures outside the country/bluegrass genre are what make this live recording so compelling. The set begins in progress and when they launch into Jim Murphy's "Running Blue" one can tell they are fired up. This lowdown bluesy number precedes a unique arrangement of Peter Rowans's Old & In The Way classic, "Land Of The Navajo." Unlike the pure acoustic bluegrass version that Vassar performed with Old & In The Way, this group electrifies it, giving it a slightly funky edge that is as delightful as it is surprising. Next up they dive into keyboardist Jackie Garrett's high-energy composition, "Don't Mess With My Funk." Like the title implies, here the band ventures deep into a funky R&B feel that engages this audience to get up and dance. To raise the excitement level even more, they next dive into a frenzied up tempo rendition of Vassar's signature song off the classic Hillbilly Jazz album, "Vassar's Boogie." This absolutely cooks and is a swinging example of Clements' jazzier style. The tail end of the show is reserved for the ultimate crowd-pleasers. Clements dazzles all listeners with a breathtaking "Orange Blossom Special" to close the set, leaving the audience roaring for more. For the encore, Clements encourages the audience to participate in a classic sing-a-long to "Will The Circle Be Unbroken."
Due to a tape change approximately a minute in, "Necropolis" is designated as an outtake here. The two parts have been spliced back together, but that flaw aside, this is one of the most dazzling performances of the night. Here they venture into jazz-fusion territory and the scorching guitar solo from Jim Murphy and the blazing fiddle solo from Clements show these musicians at their most adventurous.
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.