Climbing The Walls Review

Climbing The Walls Review
Bluegrass Unlimited Review

Duos that feature mandolin and guitar have been an important part of country music since the 1920's and'30's, when artists like the Monroe Brothers, Mac and Bob, the Blue Sky Boys, and the Callahan Brothers held sway. Those duos were primarily vocal acts, however and it wasn't until the early 1960's - when Homer and Jethro recorded "It Ain't Necessarily Square" and "Playing it Straight" - that mandolin/guitar instrumental duets really began to generate much excitement. Mike Compton and David Grier, two of the most gifted pickers in Nashville (or anywhere else, for that matter) bring the tradition into the 90's with "Climbing the Walls," an extraordinary CD that will amaze even the most jaded listener. It's a dazzling display of sheer virtuosity and as fine a collection of instrumentals as you'll hear all year.

Mike Compton, who is best known for his four-year stint with the Nashville Bluegrass Band, plays Bill Monroe-style mandolin better than just about everybody except Monroe himself. David Grier, for his part, was heavily influenced by the late Clarence White and if there is a better young flatpicker out there somewhere it's news to me. Together, these two supremely talented pickers play with a rapport that is nothing short of uncanny. Tony Trischka perfectly describes this interplay as "off-handed intricacy" in his liner notes. It's a deceptive thing, as Trischka notes, because it sounds so casual. But brilliant little touches like the overlapping solos on"Going Up Caney" or the unison crosspicking on "The New Five Cents" prove that what may be casual at first listening is really the result on Compton and Grier understanding each others playing so well that something closely akin to telepathy is achieved.

Compton and Grier are joined on most tunes by fiddler Blaine Sprouse and either Roy Huskey, Jr, or Billy Rose on bass (each plays on five tunes), a combination that produces some potent banjo-less instrumental bluegrass. Every cut on "Climbing the Walls" is superb, but "Climbing the Walls," "Going Up Caney," "Huffy" and "Waters Street Waltz" are particularly noteworthy. "Black Mountain Rag" and "The New Five Cents," a pair of mandolin/guitar duets, contain some picking that is simply astonishing and stand as the purest statements of what this partnership is all about.

Unlike many all-instrumental efforts which become tiresome after a couple hearings, "Climbing the Walls" actually rewards careful attention and repeated exposure. This is partly because the quality of musicianship is so high. But an even larger reason is that the picking of Mike Compton and David Grier (like that of their respective mentors) is so consistently unpredictable. The unexpected surprise may come from the way Compton takes one of his 'Billisms" (as he refers to his [musical] quotes from Monroe) and stands it on its head or it may come from one of Grier's startling melodic leaps or chokes. Whatever its twists and turns, though, this is music that reveals a new level of subtlety and sophistication with each hearing.

Rounder is hyping Mike Compton and David Grier as the instrumental duo for the 90's. While it's a bit early in the decade to be ordering any crowns, the evidence presented on "Climbing the Walls" certainly supports such a claim. Compton and Grier have produced an exceptional recording, one that can easily stand with the best-ever collections of instrumental bluegrass. My highest recommendation.

Bluegrass Now Review

Surprising that we haven't seen a review by one of those stogy old reprobates for whom "if it ain't rougher than a year-old corn cob, it ain't fit to listen to," taking this album to task for its smoothness and polish. Those types are also fond of calling anything well played and well recorded "slick and over-produced." And anything expertly mixed has had  a "buff job" applied to it (whatever that's supposed to signify).

Maybe they've all gone into hibernation. Or perhaps they've become too stove up with rheumatism to do reviews anymore. The fact is "Climbing the Walls" is such a charm, it may well be enjoyed and appreciated by anyone who likes music period - no matter the genre.In his liner notes, Tony Trischka calls this "an understated masterpiece." That sums it up and says it all except they told me I'd have to fill out the rest of the allotted space here.

What we have here are two of today's finest third generation acoustic music practitioners, at or very near the top of their form, playing some highly insightful tunes, four of which are their own, with all the off-hand casualness and intimacy of a jam session. Yet there's also all the energy, verve and flair of a command performance.

At first listen, you'll discover how Mike Compton is so thoroughly steeped in the Monroe school of Mandolin. Listen a little more and you'll find he's taking those Monroe stylings a little further. Some say a lot further and that may be, but it's subtle and unpretentious. Both Mike and David are and that's much of what makes this work so engaging. Nobody's hitting anybody over the head with anything. Not one another and not the listener. That's not to say there's no energy here - or punch. Just listen to the title song or the romping, rhythmic "Honkytonk Swing."

For four-plus years Mike played mandolin with the Nashville Bluegrass Band. While his work there was solid, clean and tasteful, this reviewer gets the feeling that he's delved a little deeper into his instrument or he's allowing himself to turn loose a bit more here than he did with the Nashville Bluegrass Band. Maybe a combination of both.

It's not that David Grier is one of the more underrated guitarists as some have said, because everyone that hears him is duly impressed. Maybe it's that not enough people have heard him. Maybe "...Walls" will change that. David admits to considerable Clarence White influence, and there are other notable influences there too. So the licks are all there, but it's David's interpretation, touch and feel and his penchant for occasional surprises that rank him with the best that are out there.

Twelve songs here, some new, some old, including a couple of fiddle tunes. All thoroughly personalized. Sometimes Mike and David play off one another, sometimes they compliment. Blaine Sprouse's fiddle and Roy Husky 's bass compliment most cuts. Don't be alarmed by a clarinet on one song and a hammered dulcimer on another. These don't get in the way and they don't detract. Neither does the absence of a 5-string throughout this work.

A common complaint from the raw-edged purist is that smoothness and polish takes away from the soulfulness. I dare them to make that observation here. And if they do, don't believe it! This is great 1990's picking, fancy but not dazzling. Solid but not weighty. And yes, the whole proceeding is extremely well recorded. But there's neither a shortage of soul or lack of feel.