John Cowan

Thursday, Sept. 21; Off Broadway

The liner notes to the first New Grass Revival album contain the following lines from a "poem" by Radio John of Topanga Canyon:

You bet your ass
They play that grass
And do a lot of things to it also not
recommended by the chief.

"The chief" is Bill Monroe, whose sentiments toward the first wave of hippie grass were predictably severe. At the very least, the "traditionalists" were missing one of the great American bands of the '70s and '80s. Bassist John Cowan was a mainstay of the New Grass Revival's best lineup, the one featuring a young Béla Fleck, Sam Bush and Pat Flynn. Their exciting and influential mid-'80s recordings for Sugar Hill and EMI -- Live, On the Boulevard and New Grass Revival -- offered an instructional template for today's jam bands, though the most important lesson -- get thee to a woodshed -- has been largely ignored. Like Monroe's Bluegrass Boys, the New Grass Revival were unassailable masters of their instruments, musical alchemists and breathtaking singers. Like Monroe, they instigated a genre and gave it a name; as with many quick to imitate the chief, their own followers aren't very interesting.

John Cowan's unconscious gifts as a lead tenor -- when Steve Earle and Wynonna Judd call you, you know you're a real singer -- and his ability to infuse bluegrass bass playing with gorgeous jazz melodies were seminal contributions to new grass (whatever that is). Lately Cowan has been all over the map, courting stay-at-home-with-the-kids-and-the-Clapton-CDs boomers by testing the limits of eclecticism and triple-A roots wallpaper. His new self-titled Sugar Hill disc opens with the overbearing funk-rock jam "Roll Away the Stone" and then spirals downward into accomplished but unnoteworthy R&B-based mood music. Eventually he settles into what he does best: singing the paint off your walls while banjo, Dobro, and fiddle crackle behind him. He reconceives "Dark as a Dungeon" as a gospel epic and puts his band -- featuring Scott Vestal (banjo), Jeff Autry (guitar), Randy Kohrs (Dobro) and Posi Leppikangas (drums) -- through some gnarly instrumental paces. But whether he's singing blues or bluegrass, Cowan still sings like one of the chosen and should not be missed. Nor should guitarist Tom Hall, who opens.

 
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