In their first release since their 2012 IBMA nomination as Emerging Artist of the Year, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen have come up with a winner in On the Edge. While Solivan has captured considerable media attention with his “Dirty Kitchen Experience,” in which he prepares a three-course meal combined with a performance by the band, that shouldn’t distract from the group’s impressive musicianship, both in their individual skills and in their exceptional ensemble work.
Frank Solivan supplements his fine mandolin playing with some excellent fiddling; on several cuts, including “Day to Day,” he alternates between the two on the same number. Mike Munford’s banjo picking is imaginative, precise and lightning-fast, prominent in the disc’s first cut, “I Fell Short,” a classic country tale of a repentant cheater (“ I fell short on standing tall.”) That opening number is also an excellent example of the group’s tight three-part harmonies and the exceptionally balanced instrumental work. Each member is an accomplished virtuoso, and yet none overshadows the others. (Perhaps the well-disciplined teamwork has been influenced by the leader’s years with the U.S. Navy’s bluegrass band, “Country Current.”)
Chris Luquette turns in really impressive flatpicking, most notably on another number in a traditional vein, “Wild Unknown,” and the instrumental “M80.” The latter, written by Munford, might be the single most impressive number on the album, with the lead passing smoothly from one instrument to the other. Munford’s melodic runs made my jaw drop, and the dobro playing of Rob Ickes, a guest artist on three cuts, had me looking forward to his HVBA concert with Jim Hurst this July. Also making guest appearances are Tim O’Brien (“On the Edge of Letting Go”) and Megan McCormick (“Gone” and “Day to Day.”) Rounding out the group with vocals and solid bass playing is Danny Booth, who also sings lead on Alaska-themed “Wild Unknown.”
The band’s repertoire ranges from the traditional to the blues-inflected “Too Far Gone,” the gypsy-tinged “Bedrock,” and the afore-mentioned “M80,” whose inspired improvisations seem almost jazzlike. My personal favorite is their take on the R&B classic, “The Letter” (The Boxtops, 1967), which in their hands seems tailor-made for bluegrass.
Rob Ickes refers to Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen as “the best new bluegrass band,” and—setting aside possible vested interest—he may well be right.