Live albums usually fall in one of two camps. Sometimes, even with the most talented bands, the songs come off flat and lifeless, perhaps thanks to the musicians taking too much care to sound ‘perfect.’ Other times, the recording perfectly captures the energy and groove of a great show. The latest album from Chris Jones & the Night Drivers, Live at the Old Feed Store, is firmly within the latter.
Jones and company are one of the classiest groups in bluegrass today, with a smooth, polished sound anchored by Jones’ instantly recognizable vocals. In fact, I’d now like to take this opportunity to coin the term “classygrass.” That’s not to say the other guys are just there to hold up instruments – Mark Stoffel (mandolin), Ned Luberecki (banjo), and Jon Weisberger (bass), along with Jones on guitar, are all solid musicians and just as enjoyable live as they are on a studio recording.
This album mixes together band originals, old standards, and a few glimpses back at older Chris Jones songs, making it a very satisfying effort. It’s bookended by two fiery traditional numbers – the always-fun Bound to Ride at the beginning and a furiously driving Pike County Breakdown at the end. In the middle is a third traditional number, the familiar hymn Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. It’s a nice upbeat version with fine harmonies on the chorus.
Fans of Jones’ earlier work will enjoy I Cried Myself Awake, dusted off from his days with Special Consensus and originally recorded by George Jones. It has a good country groove and is an interesting spin on the usual lonesome crying song. The highly suggestive – yet very fun – I’m Ready If You’re Willin’ was also pulled from the vaults, and the band seems to be having a good time with it.
Bass player Weisberger contributes a pair of numbers, including the album’s first single, Battle of the Bands. Co-written with Thomm Jutz and Charley Stefl, the Civil War-themed song was originally included on The 1861 Project, which commemorated the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the war. It is a gentle, emotional number about the night before a battle when both armies joined together to play Home Sweet Home. Lonely Town is easygoing and mournful at the same time, as it tells the story of a man who can’t seem to leave “lonely town” since the one he loved left him. Even though the narrator insists that “it ain’t so bad,” it’s obvious that he’s pretty miserable.
Other highlights include Luberecki’s tongue-in-cheek Cabin of Death, a humorous (though somewhat morbid) play on first generation bluegrass that he refers to as “the perfect bluegrass song” and even includes a mini banjo lesson in the middle, and the country-leaning current single, Like a Hawk. An original from Jones, it finds the singer keeping a wary eye on the woman he loves.
Live at the Old Feed Store is an excellent live album, and really just a great album in general. The songs are just familiar enough without being overdone, even for those who might be Night Drivers groupies, and the band is energetic and on point throughout the entire recording. The inclusion of stage talk at several points and audience reactions (including frenzied clapping and a sing-along) was a wise choice, as it helps complete the “live” experience.
For more information on Chris Jones & the Night Drivers, visit their website at www.chrisjonesgrass.com. Their new album can be purchased from several online music retailers.