For a couple of years now, Frank Solivan has been like a Triple AAA baseball phenom, extremely talented and just one lucky break away from getting to the major leagues and staying there.
Each CD he put out was better than the last. Each live show gained new fans. The top levels of the bluegrass game were tantalizingly close, but remained ever so slightly out of reach.
With On the Edge, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen’s Compass Records’ debut, that all may change. The 10-song CD is his strongest effort yet and seems like the perfect vehicle to take the band and their leader to the next level.
Calling On the Edge the band’s best work doesn’t mean earlier projects weren’t up to snuff. It means this one is spectacular. Solivan’s bands have always been instrumental powerhouses. But newcomers Chris Luquette (guitar) and Danny Booth (bass) join Solivan and banjo monster Mike Munford to make this iteration of Dirty Kitchen one of the strongest instrumental units around. There may be better players around on any particular instrument, but as a unit, there is no better picking crew this side of the Tony Rice Unit or the Boxcars.
But the vocals are what make On the Edge really sing. Frank’s lead work is smoother than before but still tinged with emotion. And the harmonies from Luquette and Booth are an upgrade from earlier lineups.
The vocals grab attention right from the start, with Booth’s tenor, Luqette’s baritone and Solivan’s lead carrying I Fell Short far beyond the typical song about an unfaithful lover. The tight harmonies never falter through a series of dark songs about mental illness, alcoholism and long winters.
But dark topics don’t mean gloomy music. Continuing a grand bluegrass tradition of presenting downcast songs in an uptempo style (think Footprints in the Snow), the band practically races through the playlist here.
The best new material is On the Edge of Letting Go, a song about mental illness and its toll on relationships, written by Solivan and Jon Weisberger. Also standing out is No Chance, another fast-paced number that tells of a man about to simultaneously reach the bottom of the bottle and “rock bottom” in his life. That one was written by Solivan, Weisberger and Paul Fowler.
The project’s two instrumentals, M80, written by Munford, and Bedrock by the whole band, are powerful, too. The first is one of three songs featuring guest Rob Ickes on Dobro.
But if you could only listen to one song on this project to get a feel for Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, I’d recommend The Letter, a stirring remake of the Box Top’s late 1960s hit that helped make rock singer Alex Chilton a household name. Dirty Kitchen’s version breaks the speed limit after a meandering introduction, yet Solivan’s lead vocal is polished and controlled. It’s got all of the hallmarks of a Dirty Kitchen performance: breathtaking picking, tight harmonies and a first-rate arrangement.
This is not traditional bluegrass, though the purists will feel right at home with parts of this CD, especially the Solivan-authored Day to Day. But Munford’s work on the five-string keeps everything accessible to bluegrass lovers while still appealing to those who want to test the genre’s limits.
Don’t be surprised a few years down the road to find Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen among the best in the business, and to look back and see that On The Edge pushed them over the top.