Review: Rare Bird Alert

04.08.11 | Comment?

I was a teen in the 1980s. By then my paternal grandfather had passed away and my grandmother lived on her own. Without the responsibility of having to care for an ailing husband, she renewed her life by keeping busy with a variety of activities and friends. As time went on though, her eyesight declined and she felt uncomfortable driving at night. Thus, I became her companion—first in the passenger seat and later as the driver—on some of her adventures. As a teen, you can imagine that I appreciated some escapades more than others and as I got older they became more of a nuisance than a treat. Needless to say, now I cherish every memory and only wish I had more.

One of our standing dates was a short 10 mile drive to the tiny town of Harwood. I seriously doubt Harwood had a population in the triple digits at the time, but what it did have was an empty schoolhouse. Like many towns along the railroad connecting Houston to San Antonio, Harwood had once been a thriving community. The town’s lifeblood dried up with the decline of passenger travel by rail and the introduction of the Interstate highway a few miles away. This old, brick building was a monument to livelier times and boasted a handful of classrooms as well as a cafeteria with a stage at one end—perfect for a monthly bluegrass jam.

I took the bluegrass jam for granted, just as teens take nearly everything for granted. Some of the bluegrass musicians drove three hours or more to spend an afternoon and evening in a vacant building in a speck of a community just for the joy of jamming with each other. Even while groups took turn on stage (two songs per turn), other musicians would meet in the hallway or outside to teach each other new licks or just have fun. While some musicians came to the bluegrass jam as a group, just as many arrived singly and formed groups for the night right on the spot. Many months, the tiny schoolhouse was filled with 60 to 80 enthusiasts. Remarkably, there was no admission fee for the event, only a tip jar to cover the cost of renting the building for the day.

Cover for the Rare Bird Alert bluegrass albumAll of which is to say, even though my eyes were set on rock and roll as a teen, more than a little of that good bluegrass music made its way into my heart. Thus it was with a mixture of nostalgia, appreciation for good music, and a respect for Steve Martin (yes, THAT Steve Martin) that I picked up Rare Bird Alert. His banjo prowess astounded me even when I watched a video of his standup routine, and it seems that he has finally returned to a music he clearly loves. My reintroduction to Steve’s new work came through a YouTube video of one of the songs on this album, a funny “gospel” song called Atheists Don’t Have No Songs. When I earned a $15 Amazon credit for pre-ordering something else, I decided on impulse to give Rare Bird Alert a try.

I should also mention that as I near 40 years old, I fully recognize that I’m not in the record companies’ demographics. I rarely buy music anymore, preferring to listen to Pandora. When I do buy music, it is always digital. I made an exception this time for two reasons. First, Amazon’s credit excluded digital downloads, and second, a customer review noted that the liner notes took the package to another level. Now that I have the CD in hand I have to agree. Clearly a lot of production work went into the physical package, from the trading cards(!) to the liner notes. I usually couldn’t care less about liner notes, but the notes helped me paint a mental picture while listening to the songs with no lyrics.

I won’t comment on every song, but there are a few that really stood out for me. Yellow-backed Fly is a fishing song with a whole lot of simple charm. I could listen to it over and over. Steve Martin’s sense of humor comes out in Jubilation Day, a song about breaking up. The Great Remember is a beautiful song in which lyrics would have only served to gild the lily. The previously mentioned Atheists Don’t Have No Songs is also a fun, funny treat.

I’ve listened to Rare Bird Alert completely twice now, and it will probably be in heavy rotation as soon as I can rip it to MP3. My only complaint really isn’t a mark against the album as it is a statement about my preferences. Rare Bird Alert is a studio album and sounds like it. The recording and production are top notch, the playing flawless … yet there’s a certain zest that comes from jamming together that’s missing. That is simply the nature of a studio album versus a live recording, and it’s a preference I’m sure wholly influenced by many a summer night spent listening to live bluegrass jams. Regardless, I’ll definitely be adding The Crow: New Songs for the Five String Banjo, Mr. Martin’s prior bluegrass CD, to my wishlist.

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