To the unfamiliar, old-time music resembles an antique from an earlier place and time. A number of artists like James Leva, however, have been apt at sprucing up traditional music while still respecting its roots. Memory Theatre is a remarkable album. Leva is joined by Celtic guitarist John Doyle (formerly of Solas) and his longtime singing partner Carol Elizabeth Jones. Together this crew digs deep into traditional American music to create a rich mix of instrumentals and vocals. There's a knockout version of "Boats up the River," with Jones and Leva's voices intertwining in a slow and soulful fashion. Perhaps the standout track is "Rain and Snow," a familiar song turned fresh and vital by Jones' penetrating lead vocal. It's easy to understand why a number of people consider her one of the best old-time vocalists. Leva also offers several fine vocals on numbers like "I Need to Find" and "I Remember the Way." The energetic instrumentals on Memory Theatre hold their own with the vocal pieces. Doyle's forceful guitar on "Sourwood Mountain" and "Half Past Four" offers an innovative base for Leva's fiddle to soar from. Hardcore old-time fans will be mortified by a few touches, like the drums on "Boll Weevil/Raleigh and Spencer" and "As It Is Fading," but that's too bad. Drums work nicely on both cuts. On Memory Theatre, Leva succeeds at a seemingly impossible task: he adds a contemporary edge to old-time music without sacrificing tradition. Don't miss it.
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AllMusic Review by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.