Hot Rize is back along with sidekicks Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers and I personally could not be happier. They were the ones who convinced me that bluegrass could be much more than just bluegrass and since hearing that first HR album, I have been following the individual members closely. They are hitting the festival circuit heavy this summer and that is a good thing, especially for you if you happen to find them. They are something else.
Pete Wernick is HR's banjoist and I thought it appropriate, now that the band has reformed (if only for a short time) to look at one of his albums, this time with the short-lived Flexigrass. Wernick has always been known as an envelope-pusher and What The does exactly that. Here is my take on the world Pete Wernick made his own:
Pete Wernick says it himself in the Flexigrass one-sheet (an info sheet included with promo CDs): "I've taken some knocks over the years for being different…" Of course, the knocks he took were from either bluegrass or banjo purists, most of whom could not abide the "newgrass" styles popping out of the woodwork by the young rebels tired of mimicking Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin and searching for something more challenging and new. Through it all (Country Cooking, Hot Rize, Dr. Banjo and now Flexigrass), Wernick has stood by his guns, preferring the music to the tradition. He's still standing—and standing tall.
Flexigrass, though, takes Wernick and company into uncharted waters. They have an extremely unusual lineup (banjo, vibraphone, bass, drums and clarinet—that's right, clarinet) which really shouldn't work for the music they play but amazingly does. What kind of music, you ask? On some tracks, it's hard to say. The plucked banjo throws a bit of bluegrass into an odd mix of rock, jazz and what the Brits would call trad jazz. On others, the clarinet crosses into the occasional dixieland riff and the vibraphone is off the charts, shaking the tree until the needles fall off (just check out the vibe solo in Flexigrass's sped up version of Gram Parson's classic “Luxury Liner”). The band even tosses in a few standards (the trad jazz connection), their inclusion a chance for Joan Wernick to clear her pipes (which she does quite nicely, thank you). And you can't help but give the band extra credit for covering “Air Mail Special,” a great Benny Goodman swing track, but how could they not with the incredible quality of Bill Pontarelli's clarinet and Greg Harris's vibe playing.
The earlier Pete Wernick quote goes on to say "…but that won't hold back this music." It doesn't. Wernick surrounds himself here with musicians of exceptional talent and they feed off of one another like you can't imagine. There are sparks there reminiscent of the heyday of Hot Rize when, just for fun and to break the monotony (not to say it was ever that), they would magically transform themselves into alter egos Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers (Wernick was the "donut impresario" and pedal steel player, to my left and your right, Waldo Otto). Those were the days, truly, but Flexigrass shows that these are as well.
While the sparks follow Wernick, credit must go to the whole lineup: Joan Wernick, vocals; Greg Harris, vibraphone; Bill Pontarelli, clarinet (outside of a jazz band or orchestra, who'd a thunk it?), Roger Johns, bass; and Kris Ditson, drums. Wernick ends his quote with "It's a satisfying concoction, and I just like the way it sounds." When I first put it on I wasn't too sure but the more I listen, so do I.