If you’re expecting to hear a carbon copy of a Grascals record when you listen to the latest solo effort from the group’s mandolin man, Danny Roberts, you may be disappointed. However, if impressive instrumentation, a great variety of sounds, and clear, solid mandolin playing are enough to satisfy you, then Nighthawk should be added to your must-hear list.
The majority of the tracks here are instrumentals, but there’s a nice diversity to them. They’re all originals, featuring an extremely talented supporting cast. The core band, in addition to Roberts, includes Tony Wray (guitar), Tim Surrett (bass), and Roberts’ bandmate Kristin Scott Benson (banjo), alongside several fiddlers and guest mandolin players. The group picks their way through bluesy numbers, breakneck breakdowns, a few straightforward contemporary pieces, and even one with a Celtic feel.
That Celtic-leaning tune, Coppinger’s Court, is one of the album’s most interesting. It sounds as if it could have come straight from a Renaissance court, with a lilting melody that alternates between cheerful and mysterious. Another highlight is the barnburner Big Stone Gap. Roberts’ playing is fiery yet still spot-on, while Jimmy Mattingly on fiddle and Benson also contribute excellent solos.
>Swing-a-Long is easily explained by its title. It’s a laid back number with an easy groove, with the nice addition of fiddling from Aubrey Haynie. There’s a blues vibe to Walking to Winslow, with shades of Monroe in the mandolin playing. It’s no wonder – Roberts is joined here by Monroe master Mike Compton. The same is true of the also-bluesy opening track New Gil Ramble, featuring another Monroe expert, Ronnie McCoury. Adam Haynes’ fiddle complements the style nicely on both tunes.
The title track is one of the more contemporary on the album, thanks to guest Sam Bush (on both mandolin and fiddle). Bush’s fiddling particularly stands out here. Danielle’s Waltz is a gentle duet between Roberts and Benson. Roberts’ mandolin gives the song a lullaby feel, and while Benson’s banjo playing has plenty of drive and fire elsewhere on the album, here it’s understated, perfectly matching the feel of the song.
Three of the album’s tracks have vocals, courtesy of Roberts’ young daughter Jaelee and wife Andrea. Those who have seen the Grascals live show might have noticed Jaelee on stage singing a few songs with the band over the past few years, including one featured here. Oh, Atlanta is best known in bluegrass circles for the 1990s Alison Krauss version, and Jaelee offers a similar rendition. She has a rich, powerful voice now that she will surely only continue to hone as she grows older. Jaelee also sings lead on the album’s closing track, a pared-down How Great Thou Art that allows her to once again show off her vocals. Two members of Flatt Lonesome – Paul Harrigill and Dominic Illingworth – also guest on the song, playing guitar and bass respectively.
The third vocal track here is the bluegrass Gospel number I Went Down a Beggar (But I Came Up a Millionaire), easily the most traditional-sounding song on the album. Andrea offers lead vocals, while Jaelee sings harmony. Andrea’s voice is well-suited to the song, with a direct approach that recalls classic Gospel singers of decades past.
With 30-plus years of professional experience, three Grammy nominations, and a stint managing Gibson’s Original Acoustic Instruments luthiery to his name, there’s no doubt that Danny Roberts knows the mandolin. However, as he shows on Nighthawk, he’s also creative with it and skilled at a number of styles. Roberts has delivered a winner that fans of the mandolin should be sure to check out.