The Red Clay Ramblers

Chuckin' the Frizz

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When asked to name a favorite Red Clay Ramblers album, fans of the long-running North Carolina string band inevitably seem to pick this live album, recorded over three days in a home away from home, Chapel Hill's Cat's Cradle club. This was back in the days when this club was a small, intimate listening room with an adjoining, glassed-in bar and not the bowling-alley size venue it eventually evolved into. It is pretty easy to see why this record would be a favorite. It captures what is without question the best lineup of this group, and this is not to disparage other members nor to question why talents such as Bill Hicks and Mike Craver would have moved on to solo careers eventually. Having them all together here in such a happy live setting is a real treat. Yet this isn't simply the equal of any cassette machine that might have gotten clicked on during any Red Clay Ramblers gig during this period. This is a superbly produced set with a superior recorded sound, fully capturing the rich overtones in the blend of stringed instruments and piano. Craver has never sounded better, and neither has Tommy Thompson, whose voice and banjo playing are adept and gorgeous. His ballad "Hot Buttered Rum" is wonderful, and this moving performance is one of the Red Clay Ramblers' best recorded moments. There is plenty of their snappy traditional string band material, tempos brisk and unfaltering -- there is no weak link in this band messing up the tempos in a live setting. There are also some complicated originals that really demonstrate the versatility of the players, as well as suggesting a rehearsal schedule stained in blood and sweat. To play Craver's song "Thoroughly African Man" with all its twists and turns live and have it come out with so few glitcheroonies is quite an accomplishment. That said, it must be admitted that there are listeners who don't really like this side of the band's material, despite the fact that its roots in old-time music forms are just as valid. Nonetheless, it might be an acquired taste. This is not the case for "Aragon Mill," a tremendously powerful protest songs by Charlotte's Sy Kahn, representing another superb choice in material, or a Bill Boyd cover that swings like crazy. Yes, this is the ultimate Red Clay Ramblers souvenir, the cover art featuring two examples of the photographic medium's ability to completely capture the personality of an entire band, frozen in time and attitude.

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