Review: The Expedition Show – Stormy Horizons

New expeditions of discovery and exploration are frequently marred by bad weather, uncertainty, disease and a breakdown of the human condition. Not so with the latest exciting release from The Expedition Show! May of 2013 brought the listening community Stormy Horizons and the only fever in evidence is a welcome one in the form of Mountain Fever Records, the recording studio and label for the release. With nothing to prove and everything to share, Blake Williams on banjo, Kimberly Williams on vocals and bass, Wayne Southards on vocals and guitar and Alex Hibbitts on vocals and mandolin, supported by Tim Crouch on fiddle and Phil Leadbetter on dobro bring us 12 exquisitely performed and recorded tracks solidly rooted in Bluegrass with a touch of swing, occasional gospel and the Blues.

Stormy Horizons experienced strong popularity and airplay on the SiriusXM radio network shortly after it’s release last May. Eight original tracks and four well-chosen standards make up the program. Blake Williams’ expert banjo work is in clear evidence throughout and with 30-plus years as a professional performing bluegrass musician, (10 of which were with Bill Monroe), it’s no surprise that he contributed six of the CD’s original tracks. Stormy Horizons is recorded and mastered in standout fidelity. Each instrument can be heard in pristine, warm clarity, with the overall mix bright, three dimensional and balanced throughout. Even in the car with excess background noise from driving, sparkling highs and rounded, woody bass jump from the speakers. The vocals are easy to hear, understand and sing along with. A well programmed selection of tracks delivers a really entertaining set, with each tune standing on its own and surprising us with something unique, joyful or compelling.

“Rambler Like Me”

Stormy Horizons opens with “Cheating Game of the Blues” which is an original penned by Mandolinist Alex Hibbitts. Right from the start we are launched into a great Bluegrass listening experience with unique fiddle fills, interesting instrumental breaks and vocal stories with tales to tell. Blake’s first of six originals, “Rambler Like Me.” occupies the Track #2 slot. Kim’s lead vocal contemplates life on the road, backed up by strong harmony in a tasteful arrangement featuring nice interplay between cross-picked guitar and fiddle. We are treated to some shining breaks from banjo, guitar, fiddle, and mandolin. Track #3 brings us a gospel themed tune in ¾ time. “Paradise City of God” is a solid take with vocals-forward singing and a sparking mandolin solo. Next, we cinch up our seatbelts and pull our hats down a bit for “Dryland Farmer” as the band takes us on an instrumental excursion through a minor key atmosphere of snaky, winding solos. Tim Crouch’s fiddle work is excellent on this tune. He provides a great supporting back drop to the other instrumental breaks, and his own solo contains a flurry of notes that can only be a dust storm or even tornado! With the storm over, another Blake Williams original called “World’s Greatest Picture” treats us to an intimate, perfectly recorded ballad with Kim singing solo backed only by guitar, (played by Blake.) Track #6 gets things active again with the bluegrass standard “Gotta Travel On,” reminding us what we love about this music – stories of life set to a crisp, driving rhythm section and hot instrumental breaks. Up next, the title track of the CD “Stormy Horizons” is a Jim and Jesse tune (written with Ira Louvin) that experienced immediate popular airplay when it was released as a single in February of last year. It’s easy to hear the words, and as is evident throughout the release, the harmonizing vocals fit like a glove. Blake Williams appropriately takes the lead on banjo for Track #8 with Earl Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Special.” The Expedition Show band swings this 12 Bar Blues number with a really killer mandolin solo and a break from Phil Leadbetter on dobro. Like all the tunes in the program, it’s well placed in the set creating an element of surprise and fun. Is it jazz or is it bluegrass? YES!

Getting a bit more serious Track #9 “Take the High Road” is the second faith-themed tune on the release with nice guitar accompaniment from Wayne. “Low Down Cryin’ Shame” in the Track #10 spot is unique – a haunting, brooding tune in ¾ time lamenting the woes of cheating and lying in a failed relationship, with lost love and false hope holding the singer’s heart prisoner. Phil Leadbetter’s dobro, and Alex Hibbitts’ hard-driving mandolin double stops provide short but fitting bluesy commentary to the sad story. Track #11 written by Wayne, “He’s the One For Me,” says “Don’t worry! It’s not all bad!” and takes us on a funny, partying, happy romp to a wedding day. It is definitely the polar opposite of Track #10 in both song theme and music. The band swings us to a satisfying end of Stormy Horizons with the Hank Williams tune “The Blues Come Around” in which we hear some call and response in the arrangement and solid walking bass from Kim.

A masterful release both in performance and audio fidelity, Stormy Horizons is enjoyable, accessible to many and a great example of not just bluegrass but acoustic music in general.

Mountain Fever Records

Steve Schreiber

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