John McEuen played an integral role as a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in the making of 1971's landmark 3-record album, "Circle Be Unbroken," arguably the greatest country music album ever. While McEuen's latest release may not have the groundbreaking impact that "Circle" did in blending old and new country sounds as well as convincing traditional performers like Roy Acuff, Merle Travis and Mother Maybelle Carter to sit in with a bunch of young hippie singers and pickers, there are some striking similarities between those historic sessions and these songs.
Much like "Circle," we get the intimacy of the gathering, eavesdropping on in-session banter around the Dirt Band classic "Mr. Bojangles" and the never-before heard Felice and Boudleaux Bryant's "My Favorite Dream." There's also the unpretentious vibe, as the 14 songs here were recorded live over two days - this time in a chilly church hall in Brooklyn. It's an audiophile's delight as well, as the live-take sessions had the musicians strategically positioned for what's known as a "single pass recording."
And, of course, there's McEuen's guest list. While not as historic as "Circle," it is nonetheless impressive. David Bromberg, who handles the vocals on "Mr. Bojangles" along with Matt Cartsonis, Steve Martin, John Cowan, legendary 85-year-old folkie David Amram and John Carter Cash sit in.
Lest you think McEuen is diminished to mere host, his quadruple-threat stringed wizardry is fully on display. Deftly ducking from guitar to banjo to mandolin and fiddle, McEuen even chips in on vocals.
Likely because of the nature of the recording and the artists involved, there isn't a footstomper like "Diggy Diggy Lo" or "Battle of New Orleans" here. That's forgiven though considering that it's a McEuen solo project.
An irritant though is that the liner notes lack a lineup of who performs on which song. Yes, there is this thing called the internet to look up who handles vocal duties on Warren Zevon's "Excitable Boy" or who's trading riffs on "Blue Ridge Cabin Home" (Andy Goessling and Jay Ungar, if you're keeping score at home). Nonetheless, the oversight is annoying.
While there are unmistakable similarities to "Circle," McEuen's sixth solo project stands out as a landmark in its own right of classic American recordings.