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Bela Fleck - The Blue Grass Sessions: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 2 Print E-mail
Tuesday, 27 February 2001

Bela Fleck
The Blue Grass Sessions: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 2
format: DVD-Audio
label: Warner Bros. Records
release year: 1999
performance: 8
sound 8.5
reviewed by: Bryan Dailey

ImageWho’d have ever imagined that the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ sleeper hit movie “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” would bring bluegrass music to the top of the soundscan sales charts and take home a Grammy award for album of the year in 2001? Although recorded and originally released in stereo in 1999, banjo player extraordinaire Bela Fleck (minus his Flecktones) gathered several of his friends and recorded 18 tracks of bluegrass music that have now been re-mixed into surround sound for release on DVD-Audio.

The fusion of one of America’s oldest forms of music with the latest in recording, mixing and playback technology may seem unnatural at first, but after listening to the album, I had a revelation: This is the way that bluegrass music is meant to be experienced. Generally, when these musicans get together to jam, they sit in a big circle and musically feed off each other. With the 5.1 DVD-Audio surround mix, you get the opportunity to sit in the middle of one of these jam sessions and be immersed in the sound. Unlike some surround discs, where the rears are used just for ambience or occasional emphasis, The bluegrass sessions treat every speaker, aside from the subwoofer, as a equal partner in the musical goings-on. The opening track, “Blue Mountain Hop,” even begins with a strummed and muted banjo in the rears. Bass fiddle player Mark Schatz’s parts ended up in my surround and main speakers ever so slightly because of my DVD players lack of bass management, but this album is one of the rare instances where that is not objectionable to me. Schatz’s bass parts are set very far back in the mix and there is enough definition to his sound that it does not disturb the rest of the higher-frequency information that it is sharing with the center, surrounds and the mains.

The standout song in my mind is the Latin-influenced “Spanish Point,” with beautiful acoustic flamenco guitar parts accompanying Bela Fleck’s signature banjo. The fiddle, guitar and several banjos take turns as the lead instrument and, despite an obvious structure to the song, it feels as if much of the music is right off the cuff. Ironically, the inspiration for this track came from a place in Country Clare, Ireland, rather than South America or Spain, as you might think. This track is a nice diversion from the mostly southern flare of the rest of the disc.

Being obsessed with the banjo, it’s no surprise that bluegrass was a huge influence on Fleck as a young child, and on this album, he had a chance to bring together many of his musical idols, the most notable being Earl Scruggs, the man Fleck credits with being the reason he plays banjo today. Fleck pays direct tribute to Scruggs in the appropriately named “Ode To Earl,” a light-hearted track with a bass line that bounces along with an almost waltz-like beat in three. Of all the other guest musicians on The Bluegrass Sessions, country star Vince Gill is the most famous of the bunch, lending his voice for harmony vocals on several tracks.

The songs on The Bluegrass Sessions range from bluegrass standards like the two-minute-and-21-second “Home Sweet Home” to the almost epic, nine-minute-41-second “Marura on a Bicycle, Stout and Molasses, Way Back When.” Broken up into several musical segments, this song almost gives the feeling of watching a play or musical on stage. I can picture the fictitious Maura riding on her bike in a silent film in my mind as the tune rambles along. The ability the musicians have to tell a story with just their instruments is a testament to their abilities and Fleck’s abilities as a songwriter.

If you are going to invest your time and money in The Bluegrass Sessions, you had better be sure you are a fan of bluegrass music. The continuous drone of rapid-fire, finger-picked banjos may be a little much to take for those who aren’t already fans of the genre, but the talent level that these musicians possess is undeniable. Fleck assembled three generations of bluegrass virtuosos, all with chops that Eddie Van Halen or Steve Vai would envy. Despite lacking a MLP mix, the sonic quality of The Bluegrass Sessions is stellar. It would be intriguing to hear the album with the next level of resolution that MLP would offer, but what you get on this disc is still light years ahead of the traditional 16-bit CD. There are three sound options on the disc, as with most of the Warner DVD-Audio titles, including “Advanced Resolution Six-Channel Surround,” “Advanced Resolution Stereo” and “DVD-Video Compatible Dolby Digital” for those of you without a DVD-Audio player. This means that anyone with a DVD player should be able to experience this disc in one form or another, but you’ll want to have an actual DVD-Audio player and a six-channel analog input on your receiver to fully enjoy The Bluegrass Sessions.

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