The relationship between a bluegrass artist and his or her fans is a game of expectations - and Mike Auldridge and Jimmy Gaudreau have been flying in the face of the tradition-minded bluegrass enthusiast for the past five years. As members of Chesapeake, a band of bluegrass virtuosos playing distinctly non-bluegrass folk rock, Auldridge (dobro, pedal steel) and Gaudreau (mandolin) have encountered more than their share of hostility on the festival circuit. There were converts, but Chesapeake's forward-thinking fusion never failed to rattle traditionalists' nerves.
Their new collaboration with guitarist/vocalist Richard Bennett sounds like a welcome return to acoustic bluegrass, and for the most part it is. There is still that laid-back, contemporary folk influence that keeps things from getting too twangy, but their effortless skill and instrumental grace render any concerns somewhat pointless. "This Old Town" is a low-key charmer, wistful and urgent in turn, but always tasteful.
All three are fine singers, and the vocal blend among the trio is clean and warm. What really emerges is the band's extraordinary instrumental ability. Bennett is simply an astonishing guitarist. He's fleet and nimble without being flashy, capable of searing leads and driving rhythms. Auldridge's gift is for space and restraint - his dobro floats above the music with utmost sympathy. Gaudreau's playing is clearly equal of his compatriots: intense and brisk when necessary, but more often perfectly complementary. Classy and inventive, Auldridge-Bennett-Gaudreau's debut is difficult to fault on any count.