In his liner essay, Peter Rowan writes: "These songs...are a place on the spiritual journey where the commitment has been made, the intent established, and the journey begun. The doubts and resolutions of the spiritual journey are what drives Dharma Blues...." That's dead on, but it doesn't touch the musical reach on this fine album. Some of these tunes have been part of Rowan's live repertoire for years. In his painting studio in 2006, he played them for producer John Chelew and the pair began to conceive a recording. Rowan delves deep into his American roots bag: country, bluegrass, folk, and gospel are often stitched together and woven into other sounds. In "River of Time," a cappella country gospel is appended by a country-rock band rife with pedal steel, and later with tamboura. "Raven," based on Edgar Allan Poe's poem, features Gillian Welch in duet. Progressive bluegrass meets country adorned with a rock & roll rhythm section featuring Jack Casady on bass. The title track is based on an Eastern modal signature played in 12-bar form, with guitar, bass, tamboura, bass sarod, Indian flute, and two drummers. Rowan, in full command of his vocal range in his early seventies, delivers a yodel near the end that recalls Leon Thomas. The droning slow blues in "Vulture Peak" uses a bluegrass choral architecture textured by drums, pedal steel, guitar, tamboura, and flute. Rowan sings the Heart Sutra (complete with mantra) and accents the middle with a canny guitar solo. "Restless Grave" is a minor-key country blues with excellent flatpicking, breaking, syncopated drums, Casady's bass, skittering pedal steel, and the glorious meld of Rowan's and Welch's voices. "Who Will Live" is gospelized country-rock kissed by beautiful bluegrass banjo work from Jody Stecher, steel, and beautiful lyrics from Rowan. "Snow Country Girl" is a simple mountain folk song performed with Welch. Their only accompaniment is his guitar and Casady's bass. "A Grain of Sand," another folk song, has water drum, flute, and bass sarod adding dimension to the guitar and layered vocals. If all this reads like the sound here is "exotic," it is, but it's so warm, relaxed, and intuitive it feels natural. Rowan is never preachy or overly reverent in these songs; he doesn't offer revelation or realization, just his own experience of everyday life on the road to get there. Even so, their poetry descends directly from the American folk and blues traditions. Chelew's production is empathic, but not overly careful. He understands not only what these songs mean, but what they mean to Rowan. In a career as long and as musically varied as Rowan's, some records come off better than others. Dharma Blues, for all the wily chances it takes, is a jewel, finding the artist at another creative peak.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek