Where many bands (even the younger ones) often work the angle of being “traditionalists,” Mountain Heart makes no such claims, though every player is obviously grounded in the music’s classic vocabulary. But from there, the group cites anyone from Stevie Ray Vaughn to George Jones, James Taylor to AC/DC as having an effect on how and what they play. And though what results from this seeming hodge-podge of influences tempts one to toss out terms like “crossover” and “progressive,” it might be more important to keep in mind that those aren’t things they necessarily set out to do or be — it’s just who they are.
With no shortage of musical or lyrical surprise (a nice problem to have, actually) pointing out the highlights that abound in Wide Open is a bit daunting. Fiddler Jim Van Cleve is never afraid to push his instrument’s role past its traditional borders, with frequent nods to electric jazz violinist Jean Luc Ponty’s dreamy, echoing textures. Check out his eerie intro to “Here I Am,” a kind of bluegrass’d up “Sympathy For The Devil” slice of storytelling for one illustration.
With nary a reference to the standard fare of murder, ghosts and trains (not that there’s anything wrong with that), Mountain Heart is drawn to subjects more relevant to the kind of world we live in now; the death of the small town, infidelity and loss make some strong showings here. But don’t get me wrong, the album’s tone is most certainly upbeat — it’s just equally as accessible to the city-faring, CNN informed listener as it might be the die-hard bluegrass and country fan. A difference here is that Mountain Heart is able to achieve what’s called “crossover potential” without ever sounding like they’re trying to do so- most noticeably that the band will lay most of the bluegrass trappings on the backburner to better service what the songs need, rather than adapt the material to better fit the bluegrass form. The result is songs like the drop-tuned thump and hand percussion of “I Remember You,” or the confessional near-pop of “Everybody But Me.”
The instrumental goodies abound, and the band’s intention to “... just let everybody play ...” is obvious everywhere. “Wide Open” chimes in with a thoroughly misleading “soft jazz from the 70’s” bounce, before throwing a knuckle-busting guitar fill at you as it slams into the next gear. Mandolinist Adam Steffey shines everywhere, pulling off stunning rhythmic twists and modern, sometimes angular lines that never fail to catch your attention- spin a tune like “A Town That Isn’t There” for a 15-second lesson in modern bluegrass mandolin. The instrumental gem “Deadwood” offers a clear picture of just how talented this band is, but it’s by no means the only showcase of musical command. It’s apparent in everything they do.
Gushing aside, albums like this make it really difficult to be “critical.” Mountain Heart managed to get every last bit of it right with Wide Open. By having three vocalists, you never get too accustomed to one voice- but they all sing together perfectly, too. The songs, whether written or selected by the band, exemplify what the unit does best, and there’s a confidence and polish to the performances that allows the listener to simply enjoy following these players wherever they choose to go.
One place Mountain Heart is going will be Canton’s Colonial Theater on Feb. 24 — fiddler Van Cleve is a Canton native. My “should I leave the house on that particular night or not” magic 8-ball thingee says “GO!” — and it’s never wrong.