march 2011

Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper: (clockwise from lower left): Jessie Baker, Tom Adams, Marshall Wilborn, Jesse Brock and, at center, Michael Cleveland: Stoking the flame of traditional bluegrass with their special brand of accelerants.

There’s Fired Up, Then There’s Fired Up. This Is Fired Up.

By David McGee

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper

Admirably staying true to the mission described in its name, Michael Cleveland and his Flamekeeper band stoke the flame of traditional bluegrass with their special blend of accelerants on Fired Up, Cleveland’s third album, and second with this band. Charlie Cushman has now joined Flamekeeper, but this recording predates his arrival, so Jessie Baker is holding down the banjo post Cushman now occupies, in a lineup rounded out by Tom Adams on vocals and guitar, Jesse Brock on vocals and mandolin, Marshall Wilborn on vocals and bass, and Cleveland, of course, playing fiddle with his usual soul and high-octane energy. All but four of the 14 tracks come from the band members’ pens (Adams, Brock, Wilborn), and amply demonstrate the tunesmiths’ sure grip on bluegrass and country fundamentals in songs about living, loving, moving on, hard times and triumph over adversity.

Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, ‘Shenandoah Waltz,’ live at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, Framingham, Massachusetts, Feb. 15, 2009. Jesse Brock on mandolin, Marshall Wilborn on bass, Tom Adams on guitar and vocals, Jessie Baker on banjo, Michael Cleveland, fiddle. From Cleveland’s 2002 Rounder debut, Flame Keeper.

On the more mellow side, Adams, among his other gems here, contributes a bouncy 4/4 classic country love song, “I’m Yours,” with its affecting, straightforward expressions of commitment, smooth harmonizing in the choruses, Cleveland’s evocative, lean fiddle lines and a low-key, engaging Adams vocal. Brock explores the nuances of the other end of the spectrum in the somber “Untrue Blues,” which is both a blues-tinged bluegrass chronicle of the devastation wrought by a faithless partner and the betrayed partner’s vow to surmount his sorrow and press on. Apart from Brock’s own unstudied, emotional vocal, Cleveland’s fiddling underscores the singer’s distraught state with its variety of flourishes complementing the lead vocal—now jittery, now swirling around the melody, now crying with a steady ache. Fittingly, the album closes with a heartfelt Wilborn vocal on his stately, reflective “Bigger Hands Than Mine.” Inspired by his wife’s recovery from a stroke, “Bigger Hands Than Mine” acknowledges the work of a higher power as the singer soberly recounts a struggle to gain control again, and takes heart in the natural beauty of the landscape as proof of greater forces shaping our destinies and, indeed, imbuing mortals with the strength to believe in a better day little by little, “one foot in front of the other.” The understated soundscape is flecked with Brock’s gentle mandolin lines, Baker’s lightly plunked banjo and Cleveland’s tender mandolin cries in a beautiful, easygoing arrangement brimming with both reverence and hope—pretty much a perfect album closer, especially when you take into account the presence of Vince Gill adding his feathery tenor to the choruses’ beauty.

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, ‘Monster Truck,’ from the band’s new album, Fired Up

Of course, what happens between those songs is practically pure bluegrass mayhem. The band charges out of the gate hard on the heels of “Dixie Special,” at once a train song and, as Adams writes in his liner notes, “a positive love song.” It’s also an occasion for Cleveland and banjoist Baker to take turns absolutely tearing up the melody line with their speedy interjections. Conversely, the Delmore Brothers’ “I’ve Got the Railroad Blues,” a hearty hobo song celebrating wanderlust and the unquenchable allure of the steel rail, trundles along at a steady but relatively sedate pace—it’s in no hurry to get where it’s going, but it knows it’s going to get there—fueled by Wilborn’s bouncy, blues-inflected reading, some harmonized train whistle “whoo-whoo”’s, and a passel of tasty soloing via fiddle, banjo and, for a quick hit, Wilborn’s doghouse bass. Not the least of the barnburners is the penultimate workout on Brock’s “Maine Line,” a fiery instrumental he penned after taking up residence with his new bride in the Pine Tree State; as an evocation of a fresh perspective and renewed energy, it more than makes the grade, driven initially by Brock’s own rambunctious, scattershot mandolin soloing before making room for Cleveland to come tearing in on fiddle, weaving all kinds of impossible patterns in the space of a few bars, before he in turn cedes the spotlight to…himself, for a speed-picked guitar solo that might have you wondering why he’s been wasting time with that fiddle all these years. In sum, Fired Up is indeed fired up, on multiple levels, and yet another powerhouse statement from one of most formidable bluegrass outfits on the scene.

Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper’s Fired Up is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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