Bands generally develop an artistic and personal chemistry over time, but there can be magic made the first time a sympatico group of musicians come together with the intention of creating something new. First Rehearsals captures just that – the first time acoustic quartet Sycamore Slough String Band came together to explore their artistic conceit of playing Grateful Dead music with a bluegrass flair. The Sycamore Slough String Band, comprising singer-songwriter David Gans on guitar and vocals, Bay Area bluegrass veteran David Thom on mandolin, guitar and vocals, former Fall Risk violinist Fiddle Dave Muhlethaler on fiddle and vocals, and bassist Roger Sideman – bring a wealth of influences to the music, and their musicianship, as well as their enthusiasm, shines in this initial recording.
The disc opens with the SSSB’s unique arrangement of “New Speedway Boogie,” which grafts a descending riff from Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” onto the song’s D minor chord to create a musical tension that augment’s the grim mood of the lyrics.
Thom’s twangy vocal brings “Scarlet Begonias” well into country territory, aided by some energetic fiddle work from Muhlethaler. Peter Rowan’s “Midnight Moonlight,” already a bluegrass standard, is rendered deftly with some intricate guitar-mandolin-fiddle interplay and a smooth, confident vocal from Muhlenthaler. “Jackaroe,” sung ably by Gans and nicely ornamented by Thom’s mandolin, chugs along in a Dead-like shuffle. The disc’s one extended jam builds out of “Cassidy,” winds its way through a nod to the Beatles’ “Within You Without You” and concludes with Dylan’s I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”
As befits a first rehearsal, the SSSD inevitably has some rough edges, and leans a bit too heavily on ballads for my taste. Nonetheless, it does a fine job of capturing the first blush of inspiration of what has proven to be an agile, compatible, and enjoyable aggregation of musicians.