First, Frank Solivan cooked a satisfying dinner and his bandmates served it up to about 85 lucky guests. Then the band took the stage and they all cooked.
So went Saturday night’s CD release party for Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen’s Compass Records debut project, On the Edge. It’s a fitting title. Dirty Kitchen lives on the edge of great music, just this side of crashing and burning, where exhilarating things happen. And it was a fitting event, marrying Frank’s passions for food and tunes. Plus, in a nod to Frank’s career as musician and chief of the Navy’s bluegrass band, Country Current, the event was held at Washington D.C.’s Hill Center, a gloriously refurbished structure that started its life as a Navy Hospital around the time of the Civil War.
The evening started with a three-course dinner with wine – “Frank’s Famous Caprese Salad,” “Frank’s Meatballs with saffron Risotto,” and a frozen custard with a fruit compote topping. That’s a long, long way from Bill Monroe’s legendary – and perhaps invented – downing of stale ham on biscuit sandwiches. (This isn’t a food review, but it’ll probably be a long time before I serve my version of a Caprese salad. I thought mine was good. I was wrong.)
The food was outstanding, but the best course came next door to the twin dining rooms, where Frank and his band energetically romped through a set that was heavy on the material from the new album.
The album’s official release date is April 30, but those who attended Saturday’s bash received advance autographed copies. I haven’t listened to the CD yet, but if the live performance is any indication, On the Edge will easily be Frank’s best recording yet. And that’s saying something. The band’s first release, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, holds a semi-permanent place in the six-CD player in my car, and his earlier solo projects have held up well over the years.
One of the key differences this time? The band. Former guitarist Lincoln Meyers and bassist Stefan Custodi are huge talents who helped establish Dirty Kitchen as a hot new band on the bluegrass circuit. But the guys who replaced them, guitarist Chris Luquette and bassist Danny Booth, bring new energy and stronger vocals that allow the band, as one famous chef might put it, to “kick it up a notch.”
But two things haven’t changed, as the band demonstrated in its solid set Saturday night. Mike Munford is still a monster on the banjo – he can hold his own with any five-string picker this side of Earl Scruggs, and I do mean any — and Frank is still the star of the show. There are better technical singers in bluegrass today, but no one can milk the emotion from a song the way he does. Whether it’s No Chance, a song about alcoholism that Frank wrote with Paul Fowler and Jon Weisberger, or The Letter, a driving interpretation of The Box Tops’ 1960s pop mega-hit, Frank’s interpretation is spot on.
The strongest performance of the night, for my money, was On the Edge of Letting Go, which Frank wrote with Jon Weisberger. It’s one of those quintessentially bluegrass songs in which the upbeat tempo and bright melody are offset by the seriousness of the message, in this case mental illness.
There were a handful of glitches over the course of the evening, which probably went unnoticed to most of the lucky folks in the audience. But as Frank said – I’m paraphrasing here – perfect music is boring.
Stuff happens when you live on the edge.
When you have the raw talent of these four guys, most of that stuff tends to be very, very good.