John Hartford

Steam Powered Aereo-Takes (Rounder)

Mar 27, 2002 at 4:00 am
True acoustic music -- and, more specifically, bluegrass -- doesn't really change much. When it does, it usually throws up a roadblock between the fanatic traditionalists and the young punks with the banjos. On rare occasions, though, the new-and-different manages to create such an impact that people on both sides of the fence appreciate it for what it's worth. First released in 1971, John Hartford's Aereo-Plain was one such occasion. Bringing together Tut Taylor, Vassar Clements, Norman Blake, Randy Scruggs and John himself, the album stuck a reverent poker in the craw of traditional bluegrass music. After a year, though, the Aereo-Plain Band fell apart, and little was heard from the ensemble since.

That changed this year with Rounder Records' release of Steam Powered Aereo-Takes. It sounds clichéd, and it sounds made-up, but believe it or not, somebody cleaned out his garage and found 80-odd reels of outtakes from the Aereo-Plain sessions among the smelly shoes and tennis rackets. Aired out, the collection bounces erratically, reminding listeners of what was and could've been. Refreshingly, only a couple of the songs here appear on the original record ("Presbyterian Guitar" and "Because of You.") The rest of the CD is a collection of inspired covers of some bluegrass chestnuts and other Hartford originals, all previously unreleased.

Like most outtake collections, Aereo-Takes isn't as cohesive a grouping of songs as the original album, though it still does a damn fine job of conveying the same spirit. On the whole more relaxed than the original album, songs such as "Lady Jane" and "Strange Old Man" reveal a two-or-three-beer ease. Closing out the album is the wry "Howard Hughes Blues," speaking to -- and laughing at -- the madman billionaire lurking in all of us. Clements, Blake and Taylor provide a thick canvas of wooden sound behind Hartford's spoken-easy vocals. Mandolin, Dobro, fiddle and banjo all ring foot-tappingly along. The songs flow and skip and rise and fall, 18 tracks providing one deep look into the goofy, happy, sweet, sad, in-love-with-pickin' mind of John Hartford. The only thing missing is another 18 tracks.