John Lawless

Five & Dime

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Instrumental bluegrass albums are a rarity, which seems odd when you consider that most bluegrass players -- like jazz performers -- are virtuosos. That rarity is what makes banjoist John Lawless' Five & Dime so special. Yes, there are a couple vocal tracks, and they're solid enough, but the real treat here is the instrumental dexterity of the musicians. Lawless is joined by great pickers like mandolinist Alan Bibey, guitarists Kenny Smith and Tim Stafford, Dobroist Rob Ickes, and fiddler Ron Stewart. Most of the material has been written by Lawless, and he maintains a fine line between traditional bluegrass and its more contemporary counterpart. A spunky piece like "On the Bean," for instance, moves along at a happy, free-rolling pace, reminding one of recent work by bands like New Grange. "The Guilty Pig's" fiddle/banjo lineup, on the other hand, is reminiscent of the type of music one might have heard at a house party in Appalachia before the advent of sound recording. Finally, there's a piece like "How R Ya Waltz," which -- being a waltz -- is in a category all by itself. Lawless is a fine picker who expands the banjo's normal range with his ability to play in a distinctive single-note style and his willingness to add odds and ends like bits of the blues. The vocals, while not the main course here, are equally enjoyable, with unusual choices like Robbie Robertson's "Twilight" and the Doobie Brothers' "Listen to the Music." Five & Dime will be a real treat for anyone who enjoys well-played acoustic music.

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