Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper: “Leavin’ Town”

Two years ago I was fortunate to be the only banjo player in a jam session with Michael Cleveland at 4 in the morning during the IBMA’s annual convention in Nashville. Michael Cleveland is a force of nature on the fiddle. His sense of timing is so intense, he and his fiddle seem to vibrate like a quartz crystal.

I’d heard the previous version of Flamekeeper, featuring Audie Blaylock, perform live, but the current band featured on this recording is somewhat different. Jesse Brock is still playing mandolin and singing tenor, John Mark Batchelor is now playing banjo, Marshall Wilborn is on bass, and Todd Rakestraw sings lead and plays guitar. Marshall Wilborn and Jesse Brock previously played together in the Lynn Morris Band, and Todd Rakestraw was the original guitarist/singer in a band called Union Station. You might have heard of them, for they invited a young fiddle player from Champaign, Illinois to join their group; Alison Krauss. The liner notes say John Mark Batchelor is just 21 years old, and has only been playing banjo since 2002. Well, he must have been playing the banjo 10 hours a day for the past 6 years to be as good as he is.

“In My Mind To Ramble”

Leavin’ Town is not, primarily, an instrumental recording, which surprised me at first. It features different time signatures, and wonderful harmony singing in addition to great playing. The song selection is creative in its own way, with two Peter Wernick originals. I knew Pete wrote instrumentals, but these are songs….. with words. Maybe I just haven’t been listening. There are creative versions of two Bill Monroe instrumentals, Jerusalem Ridge, performed with just fiddle and mandolin, and Northern White Clouds, a great tune written about New York’s Adirondack mountains.

Leavin’ Town is a recording with a lot of depth, and each time you listen to it you’ll hear new things. Tying it all together is Michael Cleveland’s precise sense of timing and impeccable fiddling. This is “top shelf” bluegrass by a great contemporary band.

Rounder Records

Jerry Oland

Former HVBA Board Member, banjo player with Buddy Merriam & Back Roads, Blue Plate Special, Bear Acker & Billings Gap, Wildcat Creek, Wheelhoss and the Arm Brothers, currently freelance banjoist with the Hayrollers, the Jupiter Lighthouse Porch Band, novice fiddler, and part-time real estate magnate.

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