Roots music has appeared on pops concerts before, most often sung awkwardly by classical figures or pop stars. This live release by the increasingly successful Cincinnati Pops Orchestra under conductor John Morris Russell, however, breaks new ground. The program, as the title indicates, is centered broadly on the year 1918, when new musical currents swirled around the U.S., set in motion by the Great War. Those currents include popular songs, African American songs of various kinds, and even the string band music that was the ancestor of the bluegrass and country genres as we know them today. The orchestra teams with musicians who understand these genres, and have the talent to look beyond them and collaborate broadly. Soprano Rhiannon Giddens, who came on the scene in the rare but fascinating genre of black string band music, vocalist Pokey LaFarge, and bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers are well known to anyone who follows roots music, but less so either to classical or mainstream listeners. All are a great deal of fun in a variety of old songs, like Walter Donaldson's How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm and Eubie Blake's I'm Just Wild About Harry, interspersed with orchestral pieces that may be patriotic or proto-jazz influenced. All the soloists come together on the ultimate I Ain't Got Nobody (there is a bluegrass bonus track, Auden's Train, that originated with Steve Martin and is derived from Orange Blossom Special). The musicians take some liberties with the 1918 date but do not stray too far from it, and the mix works. If there's one complaint, it's that the Steep Canyon Rangers are less successful in Irving Berlin's Remember than in tunes more suited to bluegrass treatment. There's also a tap dancer, nicely rendered by the orchestra's engineering team, and the energy never really flags. The arrangements, mostly by Rob Mounsey, are also artful, showcasing the roots musicians but making enough room for the orchestra to keep things familiar for traditional pops concertgoers. This is the second American Originals Cincinnati Pops album, and it perhaps even exceeds the successful first one.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim