The words "eclectic" and "esoteric" have, many would say, directly opposite meanings: the former resonates with an "anything goes" state of mind, while the latter implies what the marketers these days call a "targeted audience." Yet for those who experienced Hot Rize in their glory days of the 1980s, it seemed the Colorado-based quartet embodied both qualities at once - a band steeped in and reverent of the bluegrass tradition, yet with a distinctive sound and penchant for introducing new songs into the genre. (The band's name, as any fan of the Flatt & Scruggs radio and TV shows can tell you, refers to the "secret ingredient" in sponsor Martha White's flour.)
Along with other then-young bands like the Johnson Mountain Boys and the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Hot Rize spearheaded the renaissance of the music in the eighties before disbanding in 1990 after releasing their coda, "Take It Home" on Sugar Hill. Mandolinist Tim O'Brien and Pete "Dr. Banjo" Wernick have been involved in many music projects since. Bassist Nick Forster collaborated with his wife Helen to found and co-host the popular "eTown" public radio music performance show (still going). Sadly, the fourth original member, the superlative guitarist Charles Sawtelle succumbed to cancer in 1999, and any thought of reunion seemed to die along with him.
Bryan Sutton is, in the minds of many, the Best Guitar Player Alive, in or out of bluegrass. Yet, he has often cited Sawtelle as one of his strongest influences. When the 3 surviving members invited him to get together in 2002, he jumped at the chance, and Hot Rize was reborn for a limited touring schedule - but no recordings. That all changes now with the release of "When I'm Free" as the harbinger of an expanded festival and music hall presence in 2015.
Some 25 years after their last studio release, it should come as no surprise that with 3 original members still in their prime, they sound much as they did before. To his credit, Sutton does not attempt to mimic Sawtelle. Yet, he clearly understands how Sawtelle's playing fit in to the sound as a whole and does a fine job of paying tribute to that in his own way. The music is still seamless and fully coherent.
Eight of the dozen tracks are originals by one or more of the band. O'Brien is as evocative as ever with "Blue Is Fallin'" and "You Were On My Mind This Morning," and his collaboration with Forster on the opening "Western Skies" makes for a lively kickoff. Wernick's "Sky Rider," the only instrumental, is a rousing back-and-forth between him and Sutton. For a change of pace, "I Am The Road" (Sutton and Forster) features a trio backed only by Sutton's guitar and O'Brien's mandolin. Along with traditional tunes "A Cowboy's Life" and "Glory In The Meeting House," the non-original fare includes a take on Mark Knopfler's "I Never Met A One Like You", all done in a way that would have been just as natural to them in 1985 as now. The considerable loss of Sawtelle notwithstanding, still one of the best bands on the planet.