With the gradual departure of most of its original members and the sudden and untimely death of mandolinist/singer/founder John Duffey in late 1996, one might forgive the Seldom Scene if it had just given up the ghost. But instead, the sole remaining original member (banjoist Ben Eldridge) gathered some of the more recent participants around him (guitarist Dudley Connell, mandolinist Lou Reid, bassist Ronnie Simpkins, and Dobro player Fred Travers) and made one of the better Seldom Scene albums of the last 20 years. The band's reputation as a "progressive" bluegrass band remains intact, though now with a tighter focus: no synthesizers, no electric instruments. But the unusual song selections are still there, from Bruce Springsteen's "One Step Up" to Muddy Waters' "Rollin' and Tumblin'" and the Chuck Berry chestnut "Nadine." As it turns out, those are not the album's high points. Although the band's rendition of "Rollin' and Tumblin'" works very well, the Springsteen tune doesn't sit very comfortably in its arrangement, and "Nadine" is a disaster -- the banjo has to play painfully slowly to support the song's rhythm. But the Bill Monroe ("Blue and Lonesome") and Jim & Jesse ("I Will Always Be Waiting for You") numbers are standouts, and the funky bluegrass gospel of "You Better Get Right" is also superb. Maybe it's time for the Seldom Scene to go "acid grass" for good.
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SCENE IT ALL, the first album in four years from bluegrass torchbearers Seldom Scene, finds the group in good form. The quintet demonstrates it's energy and chops with a grab bag of tunes from the likes of Muddy Waters, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan. The band's lineup has changed dramatically since their last effort. Several members left to form Chesapeake, and those that remained were shaken by the 1996 death of founding member John Duffey. But the fresh, inventive banjo of cofounder Ben Aldridge continues to anchor the group, and bluegrass veteran Dudley Connell's clear tenor adds urgency to cuts such as David Norris's "Dusty" and Webb Pierce's "Walkin' the Dog." Muddy Waters's "Rollin' and Tumblin' " plays to Seldom Scene's strengths. Aldridge's rolling banjo kicks things off. Then Connell's powerful blues-inflected voice joins in as the band plays a funky ostinato. Seldom Scene understand their predecessors' entertaining yen for genre-slashing song choices. Like Bill Monroe before them, they have a way of attacking pop, traditional, and blues material that makes their common roots visible. Chuck Berry's "Nadine" gets a high-lonesome hillbilly treatment that would make the composer, who consciously shaped himself after country stars, proud. All in all, SCENE IT ALL is great fun from a great band. Don't miss the secret track, a brief rehearsal with the late John Duffey. Karl Hagstrom Miller