June 1999

Rob Ickes - Slide City
Rounder 0452
Released: 1999

by Srajan Ebaen

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]The dodo bird became famous for its disappearing act. Nowadays, anything destined for extinction goes, as street vernacular would have it, the way of the dodo. Not to be confused with the dodo, the dobro is nonetheless a pretty rare bird itself. But it reverses the fate of the animal, moving from the obscurity of endangered species into broader use and visibility -- or, more correctly, audibility. After all, the dobro is a type of lap guitar played horizontally and fretted with a steel bar where the strings are commonly plucked with fingerpicks. Even though the name dobro is now trademarked by Gibson, it used to refer simply to guitar-type instruments outfitted with internal resonators, hence the technical title resophonic guitars.

The album Slide City, due to its eclectic mix of genre-crossing styles, seems destined to catapult the dobro into broader limelight. It’s only fitting then that creator Rob Ickes should turn out to be dobrodom’s biggest sensation since reigning champ Jerry Douglas lost the yellow jersey of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Dobro Player of the Year award to Ickes three consecutive times since 1996. Ickes’ discography since 1989 spans 37 releases that feature him in various collaborations with the likes of Allison Krauss and David Grisman, and less a obvious pairing with Katsuyuki Miyazaki. It takes no crystal ball to predict where Rob Ickes is headed, even if Slide City is your first and only taste of his creative output. Without breaking into astral sweat, you’d be muttering about his fat, singing tone, his immaculate technique that always submits to the tune, and his gregarious musicianship that can infect even the bluegrass virgin with wet dreams of acoustic Americana.

The opening and closing tunes of Slide City feature Derek Jones on bass, John R. Burr on piano and Kendrich Freedman on drums. These classy cats put blisters on your tires with hard-driving takes while Ickes’ dobro sings, slurs and jives with a tone of such wetness that it just saves your wheels from blowing out. Of course, your top’s been down from all the heat, so worries about what to call this music tore out the window aeons ago. You simply bop along with the bouncy bass lines. Maybe you detect a whiff of boogie-woogie in the piano hammering on Larry Carlton’s "Don’t Give It Up" or more than a smidgen of jazz in how the piano and dobro handle syncopated runs and blue notes. But doesn’t the forward momentum reek of rock? Who cares. Enjoy the scenery and keep cruisin’.

Slide City features two vocal tracks: "Can’t Find My Way Home," to which Suzanne and Sidney Cox of Louisiana’s Grammy-winning Cox Family provide swinging and tight harmonies for Ickes’ lead vocals, and Tim O’Brien’s solo rendition of "California Blues," on which he hits a home run. There’s a version of the Herbie Hancock standard "Water Melon Man" that neither asks nor gives a quarter, sporting immaculate pace and timing. Three trio takes, "The Last Polar Bear," the swinging "Central Park" and "Be Though My Vision," illuminate the dobro’s singing qualities, which mimic the human voice in inflection and expression. Because of the dobro’s open and exposed construction, its internal airspace is less constricted than a traditional guitar’s. Coupled with the resonator, this transforms the sometimes-timid, narrow-throated acoustic guitar of chamber music events into a veritable Deep Throat of phenomenal output that can rumble like thunder and romance like a crooner. Ickes’ tone is extremely creamy and chocolatey, a luxurious sonority of calories of the choicest kind. When Joe Craven, probably best-known for his work with David Grisman, joins the party with his proven mandolin playing in "The Way We Was," the dobro’s advantage in output power could make its presence bullyish in comparison were it not for the nimbleness, elegance and fluidity of Ickes’ playing. Timbre addicts beware! The dobro’s voice is a siren’s song.

Ten tracks and 43 minutes later, our excursion through Rob Ickes’ Slide City completes its first go-around and begs for a return visit. The overall vibe of the album is very contemporary, even urban, and certain tracks won’t be out of place on some of the more adventurous jazz airwaves. I hope this album’s probable point-of-sale location in the bluegrass section won’t prevent you from searching it out. I don’t tend to veer there myself, city slicker that I am, but this album, and of course the David Grisman Quintet’s releases, have reminded me once again that jewels are to be found everywhere as long as one keeps an open ear.

But sometimes it certainly helps to be tipped off, and that’s what I’m doing here -- serious insider-trading stuff. So don’t call me. But in case you lose this map, Slide City is somewhere between California and Nashville.