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CD cover pic

They're Pickin' -- I'm Grinnin'

A review, by David RE*AC*TOR Lybrand

Plinka plinka plinka plink.... "Til the morning coooooomes..." Er, excuse me, I just can't resist singing along...

Pickin' On Neil Young - A Tribute (CMH records "CD-8025", 1998) starts off with a lone banjo that urges you to contribute a lead vocal. It soon adds accoustic guitar, bass, and even a touch of electric guitar, as 'Til The Morning Comes builds into a rollicking intro to this new album.

Your first thoughts may be along the lines of "that's Neil on Muzak". But it quickly becomes obvious that the musicians on this totally instrumental album aren't into creating a mellow "background music" set -- they're lookin' to find creative ways to re-interpret Neil's stuff in their own style.

The next song lets you know that the interpretations will NOT be predictable. This version of Needle and the Damage Done has a strange happy/sad feel to it. After a straightforward reading of the opening verse, the turn toward a lively bluegrass feel had me thinking "they've turned a sombre warning into a feel-good tune". But the more I focused, the more I realized that there's a contrast between parts where we'd sing the plaintive message we all know by heart, and the added "life goes on" melodies. I can dig it. (Good harmonica, too.)

Next we find that Mr. Soul is a fiddler's delight, with a dobro also being put to good use. Giles Apap gets to show off his fiddlin' here like no place else on the album, and does it well. The pace of this song reminds me more of the Trans version than the Unplugged version, though.

For Cowgirl in the Sand the mandolin (especially on the high notes) and mandolin/guitar interplay are faithful to Neil and Danny's pickin on the original. Those high notes do a lot to emulate the lead vocals of the original, too. Since Cowgirl is probably my favorite Neil song, I was especially interested in this track -- and I wasn't disappointed.

An accordian in Only Love Can Break Your Heart evokes a "continental" feel -- reminded me of my short visit to Vienna long ago. Even the mandolin reminds me of a zither. But the electric guitar kicks in and overlays the song with echos of Neil. This is the least "bluegrass" of the songs on this album, but satisfying nonetheless.

You'd think that Old Man would be the easiest of the songs here (note that Heart of Gold is not included) to translate into bluegrass, but that'd be the easy way out. Instead it becomes a multi-layered amalgam of guitar, mandolin, banjo and bass, with a nice tambourine backing. And on top of that, Tom Ball's excellent harmonica takes care of the leads.

After the Gold Rush is only touched upon, with a mellow solo guitar interlude. I wouldn't have minded hearing more of the song... But those thoughts are soon forgotten as Cinnamon Girl kicks in with a Duelling Banjos-like (I'm talking about the guitar-banjo Deliverance version) lead, followed by turns on the mandolin and dobro. A driving bass-line keeps the feel of this song faithful to the original.

Though blue grass often has a "happy" sound to it, the take here on Southern Man definitely has the requisite "somber" feel that the song deserves...at least until the jazzy middle kicks in (including the only piano contributions to the album). The result is VERY reminiscent of early Allman's. A strange and enjoyable variation.

Speaking of somber, we next roll right into Ohio. This is the longest song on the album, taking turns featuring Tom Corbett's mandolin, Giles Apap's fiddle, and David West's banjo. West's upright bass licks again lay down a solid foundation. Multiple simultaneous leads in the trail-out brings back memories of Neil and Stephen's interplay on the original.

A bluegrass Hey Hey My My? Featuring Bo Fox on "cardboard box"? You bet! This isn't a straight translation by any means -- the tempo is closer to that of Neil & Devo in Human Highway, for one thing. And the fiddling that fills in for Neil's lead vocal doesn't try to "sing" -- it just does it's own thing. If you first heard this song all alone on the radio, with it's unique style you might at first just think "that sounds familiar". But as soon as you realize what it is, you'd do a Neil-rush double-take...and maybe start clogging... :-)

EKTIN is the most straightforward translation ont the album. It's so close to the original that it's almost Karaoke. Sing along! At least for a bit....until the musicians start showing off... :-) And when the maracas kick in, try to resist a few clogging kicks... Once the song finishes out, you'll be suprised to hear just where these guys interpret Nowhere to be!

Comes A Time is also fairly straight forward and doesn't feature any of the big jams of some of the other songs. Mike Mullin's guitar and David West's banjo take turns with the leads, and again invite you to provide your own lead vocal.

The album closes out with a reprise of 'Til the Morning Comes that brings in a number of instruments not heard elsewhere on the album, such as dulcimer, tabla, bottleneck, and other keyboards. The happy sound fades away to leave you with a happy feeling.

I'd recommend this album to any Bluegrass music fan. And if you're a Neil fan with a taste for variety, this album is for you.
. . . RE*AC*TOR

A few details about the album:
David West (Accoustic and Electric Guitars, Banjo, Bass, Dobro, Mandolin, Hammered Dulcimer, Tabla, Bottleneck Slide Guitar, Bongos, Triangle, Tambourine)
Tom Corbette (Guitar, Mandolin)
Giles Apap (Fiddle)
Mike Mullins (Guitar, Madolins)
Al Di Marco (Piano, Bass, Keyboard, Accordion)
Bo Fox (Drums, Tambourine, Maracas, Cardboard box)
John O'Connor (solo Guitar)
Phil Salazar (Fiddle)
Tom Ball (Harmonica)
Pat Milliken (Guidance)
Producer: David West
Executive Producer: David Haerle
Engineer: David West
CMH Records
P.O.Box 39439
Los Angeles, CA 90039
(Catalog available, send $1)
May 19, 1998

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