So I don’t want to start a review off with that kind of idea, but it’s hard not to wonder whether some kids around here are born with as much the inherent need to breathe as they are a natural ability to play bluegrass. Heck, maybe there’s something in the air, too.
Mandolin players have to play fast. They also have to play clean and precise, often at breakneck tempos. They can pick like a hummingbird that’s two espresso shots over the line, and damn if they don’t have to do it all on this tiny little high strung wooden box that’s tuned like a violin and almost as unfriendly to learn how to play.
But that’s not exactly any concern for Darren Nicholson. Check out the burning version of “Amanda Jewell” that opens his self-titled album. In a little over two and a half minutes, he and his friends cover more territory on the fret-board than most guys would in a year. And that’s just the start.
As easy as it would be to say that Nicholson has been playing all his life (his bio lists his first gig was at 18 months), it’s been his most recent tenure in the mandolin slot with bluegrass upstart Alecia Nugent that gained the most exposure. Having backed her up at the Grand Old Opry and through three years of touring, it’s not much of a surprise to see her name in vocal credits of several tunes here.
Though there’s no original material on Darren Nicholson, the songs are well chosen and smartly played, mostly drawing from classic bluegrass, traditional tunes and gospel. The lazy waltz of “Love Makes A Fool Of Us All” serves as a duet for Nicholson and Nugent. Here, he not only provides lead vocals and mandolin, but he tosses in some downright Willie Nelson-inspired nylon string flourishes between verses just for flavor. The two deliver a mournful, deeper shade of bluegrass singing here that reflects the song’s personality perfectly, trading verses and splitting into gorgeous harmony for the choruses.
As much as this is a solo album for Nicholson, he obviously has no problem sharing the spotlight with the other soloists. Andy Ball turns in some positively stunning Dobro work on a fistful of tunes, notably his turn on Bill Monroe’s “I’m Going Back To Kentucky,” where he bobs and weaves with Nicholson’s mandolin at warp speed through the changes. Dig his fills underneath that second verse as well as the solo that follows.
Later, on “Arab Bounce” the sparring continues with guitarist Andy Falco tracing a nimbly flatpicked solo or doubling some fantastic lines with the mandolin toward the end of the first cut. Another local cat and banjo picker extraordinaire, Marc Pruett, shines on several tunes, and on this level the album achieves the tough goal of balancing hot playing with great songs and vocal performances. Often it’s a tradeoff — but not here.
Darren Nicholson has crafted a bluegrass album that proudly demonstrates his roots while maintaining a fair amount of crossover potential. Modern in delivery but thoroughly grounded in tradition, this CD is chock full of inspired playing and indicates a fine start to the New Year — even if the album officially got released last October.