Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick, Charles Sawtelle and Nick Forster all
maintained solo careers, and Hot Rize never seemed to tour or record
with regularity, but the band was always something to look out for, or
look forward to. They used a broader palette of musical colours,
including electric instruments from time to time, and featuring
Wernick’s phase-shifted banjo.
They didn’t need gimmicks — even though they had lots of them, most
obviously their alter egos, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers — and
those kind of things were just diversions which, for the most part, were
welcome. The strength of the ensemble, and the vast experience that the
players brought to it, often was a reminder of just how good bluegrass
music can be. They are also a reminder that, no matter how good the
parts, the whole is an ensemble; these aren’t players that sit back and
wait for their solo, rather they are constantly in tune and contributing
to what’s going on.
With Bryan Sutton on guitar, the band is certainly as good as ever, and
also gives us a welcome chance to hear Sutton, as well as O’Brien, in a
standard bluegrass unit. The voices dip in and out, circling around
each other in “Sky Rider,” one of two instrumentals on this disc.
The writing is strong — as on “Western Skies” and “You Were on my
Mind” — as of course it would be given that O’Brien is one of the best
writers in the genre. “Doggone” is a nod to the blues-rock influence
that we’ve heard from Hot Rize before, though the album as a whole stays
very close to the core of what Hot Rize is all about.
Ultimately, “When I’m Free” may be the band’s strongest release ever,
and with 24 years since the last studio recording, it certainly doesn’t
come a moment too soon.
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