My knowledge of traditional bluegrass music is something short of wide ranging, but my knowledge of traditional Celtic music isn't, so it was with great anticipation that I viewed The Chieftains / Down the Old Plank Road: the Nashville Sessions in Concert. Recorded at the historic Ryman Auditorium in September of 2002, Down the Old Plank Road unites the Chieftains with a who's who of current bluegrass, country, and folk music in a celebration of the complimentary genres. Since the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack proved such a surprise hit - and helped traditional country, folk, and bluegrass cross traditional listening lines in the United States and elsewhere - Down the Old Plank Road further helps the cause, as it were, for both bluegrass proper and traditional Celtic music. And with the Chieftains and company acting as ambassadors, it's not difficult to understand why.
Performances include some of the following guest vocalists and musicians: Jeff White, Buddy and Julie Miller, John Hiatt, Tim O'Brien, Earl Scruggs, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Douglas, Patty Griffin, Ricky Skaggs, Martina McBride, Alison Krauss, the Del McCoury Band, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings.
An Poc Ar Buille / Medley - The Chieftains
Tennessee Stud - Jeff White
Country Blues - Buddy & Julie Miller
Down the Old Plank Road - John Hiatt, Jeff White & Tim O'Brien
Sally Goodin - Earl Scruggs
Lambs on the Green Hills - Emmylou Harris
Rosca Catha - Jerry Douglas
Whole Heap of Little Horses - Patty Griffin
Cindy / Cotton Eyed Joe - Ricky Skaggs
Shady Grove - Tim O'Brien
I'll Be All Smiles Tonight - Martina McBride
Jordan's a Hard Road to Travel - John Hiatt & Tim O'Brien
Molly Bán - Alison Krauss
Rain and Snow - the Del McCoury Band
Katie Dear - Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
Give the Fiddler a Dram (Finale) - Various
Two aspects become quickly apparent while viewing and listening to Down the Old Plank Road - the sheer virtuosity of the participants, and the almost greater enthusiasm all the guests share in working with the Chieftains. Before each artist is brought on stage, brief interviews and reminiscences are offered on the DVD. As Emmylou Harris notes, this was the Chieftains' gig, and each artist knew that they were, essentially, on their turf. However, this did not preclude a real spirit of collaboration, and the results are generally good to flat-out excellent across the board.
And, naturally, it wouldn't be a true celebration of Celtic and bluegrass music without a little dancing, and Down the Old Plank Road features the remarkably light feet of Jon and Nathan Pilatzke, brothers from Ottawa who have created their own particular brand of energetic (and entertaining) expression.
Some particular highlights for me: Jerry Douglas' guitar work on "Rosca Catha" is mightily impressive (I think I may seek out some more of his work); Alison Krauss' haunting rendition of the heartbreakingly sad "Molly Bán"; Martina McBride's vocals on the traditional "I'll Be All Smiles Tonight;" the Del McCoury Band has an absolute blast ripping through "Rain and Snow;" and, lastly, the finale - which gives virtually all participants a chance to shine - really brings it all home.
Sadly, it should also be noted that the Chieftains harp player, Derek Bell, died shortly after the completion of the concert and the CD.
Video: The concert is presented in full frame (some of the additional footage is in widescreen), and Down the Old Plank Road looks great. The clarity and color reproduction is extremely well done for this sort of affair, and the camera work does not distract from the performances at hand.
Audio: Presented in DD 5.1 and digital linear PCM stereo mixes, Down the Old Plank Road - more importantly - sounds great. I listened to the 5.1 mix, and it was excellent. The higher registers are true and clear, and the bass saturation is not overpowering. The vocals are also well rendered, with the brief exception of Patty Griffin's performance (which may very well have been intentional). The balance was remarkable - each instrument, from the banjo to the uilleann pipes, the piano to the bodhran - was remarkably clear, and none were sacrificed for another. Surround activity is limited, but the overall presentation is effectively and pleasantly done. Very well done and an absolute pleasure to listen to.
Extras: There are two brief featurettes on board:
The Making of Down the Old Plank Road - the CD (7:13): This features interviews with the Chieftains (most prominently leader Paddy Moloney), and includes studio footage and brief interviews with most of the participants, including Skaggs, Hiatt, Scruggs, Welch, Lyle Lovett, McBride, Fleck, etc.;
There is also a brief Exclusive Behind the Scene Look at the Ryman Sessions in Concert (3:56, which essentially acts as a trailer of sorts for the Down the Old Plank Road concert;
There is also a partial Discography of the Chieftains, featuring track listings of 18 of their forty albums, including 30-second previews of each track from six of them (pretty nifty, that);
Also included is a weblink to www.Irish.com.
Final Thoughts: Down the Old Plank Road will undoubtedly appeal to fans of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, as well traditional Celtic and bluegrass enthusiasts, and I would not be surprised if it made some new fans out of the under or non-exposed as well. The fun and mutual admiration is contagious, and it is impossible to not appreciate the levels of (seemingly) effortless expertise on display. Highly recommended to fans of either genre, and recommended to fans of simply good music in general.