One of – if not the – most anticipated albums of the past year was the return of Hot Rize after twenty-odd years with When I’m Free. Since its release in late 2014, the group has embarked upon a popular tour and received a significant amount of airplay with several singles. The album, a twelve-track collection from Ten in Hand Records, is a satisfying effort, demonstrating that the passing of two decades has done little to dull the band’s embrace of its signature sound.
When I’m Free is a largely original recording, with eight of the twelve songs written or co-written by band members. Western Skies, written by bassist Nick Forster and mandolin/fiddle man Tim O’Brien, is an appropriate opening song, recalling the band’s Colorado origins in both its lyrics and its bouncy, toe-tapping Rocky Mountain-grass sound. It’s the story of a man trying his hardest to get home to the place he loves the best, and though the setting is a little different than most bluegrass songs, it’s still a familiar sentiment. Doggone, written and sang by Forster, has a fun, bluesy feel, with all of the musicians seemingly fully engaged in what they’re doing. There’s a lot of things going on all at once, but it works. Another number that has excellent instrumentation is Pete Wernick’s instrumental Sky Rider. It’s upbeat, with a nice full sound guided by Wernick’s banjo.
O’Brien, who sings lead on the majority of the songs here, has a very distinctive voice that has made him one of the most recognizable male vocalists in bluegrass. His expressive vocals are perhaps used best in his original song Blue is Fallin’. It’s a well-written bluesy number with a dark feel, told from the perspective of a man struggling with anger and depression (the “blue” of the song’s title). His phrasing is on point in Come Away, a song that finds the singer asking a woman to give their love one more try, with a pleading tone that fits the lyrics well.
The album closer, Clary Mae, probably comes the closest to what might be called the “classic” Hot Rize sound (think Nellie Kane). An enjoyable song from the pens of O’Brien and the late Harley Allen, it has an easygoing vibe as it shares the story of a young man asking the one he loves to run away with him despite her parents’ misgivings about the relationship. After listening to it a few times, I realized I’d heard it somewhere else previously – David Parmley cut it in 1998 (under the title Claire May), with a more country feel.
British guitarist Mark Knopfler’s I Never Met a One Like You, a sweet love song, has a pleasant, light sound, similar to something O’Brien might have recorded on one of his solo projects. It is one of two covers on the album, with the other being Los Lobos’ Burn it Down, which has a harsher sound than much of the rest of the album and lead vocals from Forster. There are also two new arrangements of traditional songs – the loping, lonesome A Cowboy’s Life, and the excellent, Celtic-flavored instrumental Glory in the Meeting House. The latter features some instrument swapping, as well, with Forster picking up the mandolin and guitarist Bryan Sutton (whose work throughout the album is, as always, tasteful and solid) playing clawhammer banjo.
Though Hot Rize never truly left the bluegrass scene, with a number of mini-tours and reunion concerts over the years, When I’m Free is their first all-new recording since 1990’s Take it Home. I’m sure that after hearing this record, fans both old and new are hoping they don’t wait quite as long for their next album.
For more information on Hot Rize, visit their website at www.hotrize.com. Their new album can be purchased from a variety of online music retailers.