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Notes from My Listening Room #3
By Josh Bizar

Social distancing is hard. Many of us are not accustomed to staying inside all day, and not coming into contact with friends and neighbors. At times like these, it's really important to check in with your older and single neighbors to make sure they are okay. Facetime/Skype calls are great. Even a simple phone call can be a nice way to remind friends and family they are not alone. My wife, Rebecca, spent last night on a multi-person video conference call with a bunch of her friends (all of whom also enjoyed some wine) to add a sense of normalcy to the end of a long day.

When my workday finished, the sun was still shining bright here in Chicago, so I got to take a very nice, long walk outside with my dog, Winnie. It's amazing how the sun on my face can be enough to alter my mood. Last night, I was also able to do more listening while my wife was on her video chat.

First up: David Grisman Quintet '80
I have always been in love with great acoustic music—especially, a type of jazz created by world's finest bluegrass musicians and master acoustic players. Many call the style New Grass. There was a big scene in Northern California, and one just as influential sprung out of Nashville. Musicians such as Tony Rice, Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Mike Marshall, and Mark O'Connor are among its original pioneers. But the artist I'll focus on here is David Grisman. An incredible songwriter and mandolin virtuoso with a fantastic jazz sensibility, he's not afraid to surround himself with the world's leading players and pickers.

Quintet '80 is full of Grisman originals, a beautiful acoustic take on John Coltrane's "Naima," and a masterful workout on a tune called "Mugavero" written by John Carlini. On the record, Rob Wasserman handles bass, Darol Anger performs violin and cello, Mike Marshall plays mandolin, and Mark O'Connor tackles guitar (he later became a famous violinist). The results come across like a combination of jazz, roots, and chamber orchestral fare. It's a melting pot of music and playing styles. I have always found it to be extremely soothing.

My vinyl copy is a WB promo pressing, with a gold-stamped "Not for Sale" emblem on the back album cover. The recording sounds extremely spacious, with remarkable richness and the musicians all given their own space in the soundstage. Unfortunately, I have not seen the LP on any streaming sites, and it has not been repressed since the early 80s. For a taste, however, Qobuz has a high-res version of Grisman's stellar Dawg '90, recorded a decade later.

Next up: Gillian Welch The Harrow & the Harvest
Gillian Welch and her husband, David Rawlings, are Americana wizards. I cannot think of any current players who are more authentic in their respective field. While the duo occasionally trade off recording albums under their individual names—Dave Rawlings Machine is definitely worth checking out—Welch's LPs feature inimitable emotion and singing. And I really love how seriously the couple takes recording quality. All analog signal paths, great microphones, and a commitment to placing the listener in the studio with the band. Released in 2011, The Harrow & the Harvest —as well as 2003's Soul Journey—constitutes a trifecta for any music lover or audiophile in that it presents compelling songwriting, phenomenal playing/singing, and reference-level sonics.

From start to finish, The Harrow & the Harvest is storytelling at its best. "The Way It Goes" unfolds with eerie naturalism in my room, with both artists playing just for me. "Tennessee" proves equally haunting. "Six White Horses" adds a fun touch of some of the most lifelike reproduction of hand-slapping-thigh beats and harmonica accents I've ever heard. There is not a track on the record that won't take you somewhere with an enormous sense of realism.

I have spoken to industry veterans who have told me tales of Welch and Rawlings' dedication to analog recording and playback. For the Acony Records LP reissue, they chose Kevin Gray to cut from the original tapes and QRP as the plating and pressing plant. Not surprisingly, I give this impeccable record my highest recommendation. As for its ability to take me out of my head and clear my mind before bed? It's a godsend. Ms. Welch and Mr. Rawlings: More please!

To close, "Hard Times" might be the most poignant song you’ll ever hear about a man and his mule. "Hard times, ain't' gonna rule my mind," Welch sings. I can't think of any better theme to end my day.

March 23, 2020

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