Reviewed by Henry L. Carrigan Jr.
Last year, the Steep Canyon Rangers played one of Levon Helm's legendary Midnight Rambles at Helm's Barn in Woodstock. After the Ramble, Helm invited them to come back to record in his studio. Regrettably, Helm passed away before the band could get back to the Barn, but they nevertheless returned to the magical studio to produce an album of originals that contains such musical variety that every listening reveals a new facet of the Rangers' musical magic.
The album's title track opens with a plucked fiddle and a spare vocal that mimics the fiddle line, but like the train that's the subject of the song, the tune soon rises into a chugging, clattering, rolling chorus of guitars, drums-Jeff Sipe of Leftover Salmon-and swelling, frenetic vocals. Just as the train starts flying down the track-"When that 97 hits 110"-so does the song, and "you can feel it in your soul." A mournful mandolin, sounding for all the world like David Grisman in Old and in the Way, kicks off Bluer Words Were Never Spoken, a tale of a train station denizen named Blind Willie who hears the sad tale of a girl telling her guy goodbye. The propulsive and energetic Come Dance kicks out the bluegrass jams, propelling you out of your chair and onto the dance floor. A funky, swampy guitar lead guitar sets Camellia into motion, weaving around a thumping tune whose chorus-"sweet Camellia I'd like to steal you/away from all the troubles in your life"-combines Jesse Winchester's rumba style with The Band's hard-driving Ophelia. Gypsy jazz and western swing captures the boozy, rambling character of Las Vegas in the album's closing track, while Mendocino County Blues channels the joyous sounds of the New Riders of the Purple Sage and the Grateful Dead in a tale of joy and agony.
"Tell the Ones I Love" showcases once again the Steep Canyon Rangers' deft songwriting, their wide-ranging instrumental virtuosity, and their command of a wide variety of musical genres.