august 2008

clevelandLEAVIN’ TOWN
Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper

Five-time IBMA Fiddler of the Year Michael Cleveland is skilled in the art of tearing it up (on barnburning numbers) and tearing it out (your heart, that is), but on his first album with his new band Flamekeeper he gives wide berth to his talented bandmates to ride roughshod over listeners’ emotions, even while enhancing the various conversations with his own deeply felt and smartly crafted solos. The chief recipient of Cleveland’s beneficence is guitarist/lead singer Todd Rakestraw (a founding member of Union Station), who exhibits unwavering aplomb in employing his keening, crying voice to power everything from the frantic album opener, “Sold Down the River,” to the downcast country weeper, “My Blue Eyed Darling.” Rakestraw also shows a deft touch as a songwriter, contributing “I’m Ridin’ This Train,” a spirited breakup memo to a faithless lass who need only check out the rapidity of the hard-driving fiddle, banjo and mandolin solos for an idea of how eager he is to leave her behind. However enthused he is over the prospect of ridding himself of a wayward lover, Rakestraw reigns it in and tenderly articulates a vision of a pastoral Heavenly home beckoning a mother and son to its green, bountiful gardens in a beautiful gospel-tinged ballad, “Come Spring,” with Cleveland’s deliberate fiddling adding the proper dollop of winsomeness to the narrative. Jesse Brock, one of Cleveland’s mainstrays in recent years, eases his smooth, affecting tenor into memorable harmony roles throughout and cuts loose on an absolutely dazzling and dauntingly dexterous mandolin run to introduce his original instrumental, “Kickin’ Back” (which is anything but relaxed), setting the stage for lively discourses with 21-year-old banjo whiz John Mark Batchelor and especially with Cleveland, who answers every rousing charge with richly textured, dynamic retorts of his own in a breathless rush to the song’s close. One of the true delights to be found on any Michael Cleveland album is here in the form of Bill Monroe’s sprightly instrumental, “Jerusalem Ridge,” an energetic fiddle-mandolin dialogue between Cleveland and Brock, with Cleveland working intriguing, angular variations on the theme and Brock adding fleet-fingered, cascading solos in response. Cleveland has had his share of interesting moments on record, but in Flamekeeper he’s found the configuration of players who bring out the best in him. And Michael Cleveland at his best is something everyone should hear.—David McGee


Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024