March 2002

Various Artists - Cool Blue Rocks: Rock & Roll in the Bluegrass Tradition
Sugar Hill SUG-CD-3930
Released: 2001

by David J. Cantor

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]The producers of Cool Blue Rocks: Rock & Roll in the Bluegrass Tradition made a fine selection from among the vast number of tracks available to them in a time when rock influences musicians in virtually all genres, bluegrass included. One enjoyable aspect of this disc is its wide range of rock styles. Songs by Lowell George, John Fogerty, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Mark Knopfler, Johnny Winter, U2, Bob Marley, and the Rev. Gary Davis are featured, and even "Cross Road Blues" by Robert Johnson, who wrote and recorded it quite a while before the human ear first feasted on rock ‘n’ roll -- or bluegrass, for that matter -- done here by Sammy Shelor.

An exemplary track is Tim O’Brien performing Bob Dylan’s "Tombstone Blues." Here, the song is wrested, especially in rhythm and tempo, into a bluegrass style, as opposed to merely being played on bluegrass instruments. Flying along more quickly than Dylan’s original, it has a lighter tone as there is no time to dwell on the lyrics. Yet the song’s intelligence, wit, and intriguing metaphors come through. A delightful bunch of O’Brien’s Dylan renditions, including this one, are available on O’Brien’s Red on Blonde.

Two of the most successful tunes are performed by The Seldom Scene, a long-enduring and influential contemporary bluegrass band: "Settin’ Me Up" by Mark Knopfler -- you know the one: "Settin’ me up to put me down/You’re makin’ me out to be your clown" -- and "Bad Moon Rising" by John Fogerty, a Creedence Clearwater Revival number.

Perhaps the most ambitious cuts are the Jimi Hendrix tunes "3rd Stone from the Sun" and "Hey Joe." By and large, I much prefer songs with words (if it isn’t sung, is it a song?), but hearing Psychograss play the instrumental "3rd Stone" -- from its CD Like Minds -- one readily understands how fiddler Darol Anger must have wanted to record the winding, somewhat Middle Eastern-sounding melody and how mandolinist Mike Marshall, Tony Trischka, who puts bow to banjo here, and the other members of Psychograss would want to follow through, once having gotten into the groove.

Enjoyable but not as far removed from the originals are the Bob Marley reggae tunes "Is This Love" performed by virtuoso mandolin picker and strummer Sam Bush and "One Love/People Get Ready" performed by New Grass Revival, an innovative bluegrass band also featuring Bush. In the same category I would place Chesapeake’s skilled take on "Let It Roll" and Sam Bush’s version of "Sailin’ Shoes."

If you enjoy rock, bluegrass, or both, like to be able to comprehend words as they are sung, and can be grabbed by a variety of rhythms and styles, Cool Blue Rocks is a good find that may also inspire you to pick up some of the CDs whose tracks found their way onto this compilation.