Rob Ickes

Big Time

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When Rob Ickes' Hard Times first appeared in 1997, it was one of the most anticipated debuts in modern bluegrass history. That it lived up to its promise as a soulful work with dazzling players offering a startling new take on the music was a universally accepted assessment. Big Time is Ickes' fourth outing. He has followed the path of the artists of old in that he has continued to develop his craft and deepen its nuances. Along with the stellar Blue Highway band, Ickes has taken contemporary bluegrass into wondrous new directions, without ever leaving the true heart of the music to the wayside. In fact, of all the superchoppers out there, Ickes never discounts the soul quotient in his playing or recording. A listen to the ballad "Matt Hyland," with its loping Dobro and fiddle lines that nearly weep in counterpoint, is an example. Also, the solid fever stomp of "Born in a Barn" never leaves behind its hoedown flavor despite smoking solos by Shawn Lane, Ickes, and flatpicking bad ass Tim Stafford. Ickes' open country jam "The Fatal Shore" prefaces a deeply moving read of "Wayfaring Stranger," complete with Dobro harmonics that offer a haunting template for the melody of the tune. Indeed, the piece is tagged later on with a stellar version of Merle Travis' "I Am a Pilgrim." The double flatpicking duel at the beginning of the nugget "Fiddler's Dream" is a riotous journey into joy courtesy of Lane's smoking mandolin and Stafford's counterpicking revolution. By the time Ickes takes his solo, the listener is already overwhelmed, but he takes it into overdrive anyway. The most beautiful cut on the set is a deeply bluesed-out reading of Bill Monroe's "Lonesome Moonlight Waltz," with its backhanded slide runs and dirgelike tempo. This is the finest moment Ickes has committed to tape thus far.

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