Album Review of
Acoustic Rising

Written by Joe Ross
August 15, 2015 - 12:00am EDT
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Recorded in Virginia by George Hodgkiss, "Acoustic Rising" is the third solid project from this duo that has previously given us highly-acclaimed "Acoustic Campaign" and "Cruisin' the 8." Opening with a driving demonstration of Mark Johnson's confident original "clawgrass" banjo style on "Cold Creek March," the set then proceeds through two other chilly numbers, "Cold Frosty Morning" and Dylan's "Girl from the North Country." Their singing and playing about the cold actually covers us with a blanket of warmth.

Ten additional numbers drawn from a very diverse group of songsmiths from Archie Fisher to Archie Webster, David Akemon to David Norris, Mary Chapin Carpenter to Bill Monroe. Emory Lester provides guitar, mandolin, bass, viola on the Celtic ballad "Denbrae," and sings on about a quarter of the offerings. In his two originals, Johnson honors people (a newborn child "Katie Weeks" and his mother "Eileen O'Neill"). Lester chooses a minor key for his own "Wagon Line." There's plenty of vivacious drive, charismatic magnetism, and clean picking that draw us into their music. On a few numbers (e.g. "Wagon Line" or "Timberline"), I would've enjoyed hearing some fiddle, resonator guitar, or vocal harmonies, but the duo's intent here is to present their unadulterated signature sound. Perhaps some more of Emory's viola and instrumental harmony in their arrangements would have fully satisfied my need for a tad more variety. I think Ricky Skaggs even agrees with me when he stated, in his notes about the reflective closer "Eileen O'Neill," that he was "waiting for an irish piper to start playing at any time." I would've settled for viola.

All songs on the 42-minute album include:  1. Cold Creek March, 2. Cold Frosty Morning, 3. Girl From The North Country, 4. Katie Weeks, 5. Ashfields & Brine, 6. Big Sciota, 7. Denbrae, 8. John Wilkes Booth, 9. Down To The River To Pray, 10. Wagon Line, 11. Timberline, 12. Monroe's Hornpipe, 13. Eileen O'Neill

Mark and Emory have been playing together as a duo since 1999. Both artists bring considerable experience to the table. Mark hails from New York but now lives in Florida where he works for the Florida Power Authority. He took up the banjo in 1971 and learned from Jay Unger. He formed a band called "Clawgrass" in 1996. Crossing paths with Larry Rice in Florida, Mark recroded an album with the Rice Brothers at Tony's home. Larry (along with Ricky Skaggs and David Grisman) provide liner notes and comments in the CD jacket. Johnson plays a Deering Custom "Ivanhoe" open-back 5-string banjo which delivers a vigorous sound firmly entrenched in tradition but still very contemporarily creative.

Emory Lester, from Virginia, lived in Canada for five years (1988-1993), won the "Mandolin Player of the Year" award there, before returning home in 1993. His previous bands have covered many genres including bluegrass (Grassworks), new age rock (Earthen Sky), and new acoustic (The Emory Lester Set). His bluegrass experience has been with top names such as Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Del McCoury, Eddie Adcock, Bill Emerson, Jimmy Gaudreau, Gary Ferguson and Sally Love.

The proficient musicianship of Mark Johnson and Emory Lester is individually great, and collaboratively phenomenal. While overtracking is certainly a factor to consider, I'm very impressed with any duo that can provide this magnitude of sound, tonality, and vicissitude. I enjoyed the eclectic nature of their repertoire that tips its hat to old-time ("Cold Frosty Morning"), bluegrass ("Monroe's Hornpipe"), Celtic ("Denbrae"), Gospel (a seductively slow solo-banjo instrumental "Down to the River to Pray"), and folksy balladry ("Timberline"). What an accomplishment to be able to capture old-time sensibilities in such a fashionable and 20th Century way! (Joe Ross)