Listening #6 Page 3

How often? Thanks to my review sample of the Linn Klimax Kontrol preamp with its remote-controlled mono switch, I made a recent informal effort to answer that question. I'd say that, on average, one out of every five or six stereo classical recordings sounds better to me in mono—as does one out of every three nonclassical stereo recordings. A lot better.

For example, the well-known traditional country collection Will the Circle Be Unbroken is indeed stereo pop at its best. It's a simple, intimate recording to begin with, having been taped live to two-track through a nice old tubed mixing board (remarkably, at least half the performances were first takes!). Regardless of whether they're realistic or not—we all know that microphones don't hear the way people do—the imaging effects on the record are convincing. It's easy to hear this album and imagine you're listening in on a tight circle of pickers and singers.

On the other hand, I was recently listening to Loudon Wainwright III's History album—one of his best, I think—and for whatever reason, I just wasn't getting it the way I usually do. So I popped the mono switch and, bang, there it was: a solid chunk of music at one end of my room. The voice came forward a little and the bass got tighter. The notes played by the pedal steel guitar on "So Many Songs" were now more important than the place it was playing them from. That recording, for whatever reason, just worked better in mono, sonically, musically, and emotionally.

And if some stereo recordings sound better played back in mono, all mono recordings certainly sound best that way, freed from whatever electronic indignities your stereo system would impose on them.

I'll return to this subject briefly next month, after I've had a chance to listen to a brand-new mono reissue of one of the rock era's last great mono recordings—an album that, until recently, suffered the greatest indignity of all: simulated stereo. But let's have one more beer before I go...

O, Brothers
By the time you read this, the bluegrass festival season will be in full swing (notwithstanding paragraphs 1-4). I plan to take in at least two this year: Grey Fox (in Ancramdale, New York, in the beautiful Hudson River valley) and Gettysburg. Bluegrass music may not be for everyone, but I sure like it—besides which, I like being outdoors, I like most of the people I meet at the festivals, I like jamming in the parking lot with my fellow amateur pickers, and I like kicking back and watching the assembled mash of humanity, especially the young hippie chicks who dance in front of the stage in their filmy skirts.

But for whatever reason, listening to teetotaler Ricky Skaggs, teetotaler Doc Watson, or teetotaler Ralph Stanley has the same effect on me as mowing the lawn on a hot afternoon: It makes me want to crack open a nice, cold beer. In a way, I suppose that's perverse.

Whatever your beverage of choice, you may find the festival experience very much to your liking. Most of them tend to be multi-stage affairs, so if you get tired of sitting still and listening to the headliners perform through the sound system, you can go for a walk and take in one of the smaller acts—often performing impromptu sets wherever the mood strikes them—from just a few feet away. If you love acoustic stringed instruments the way I do, a good bluegrass festival can be no less than a sonic orgy.

Feel like giving it a try this year? To find out what festivals are nearest to you or your vacation destination, the International Bluegrass Music Association, or IBMA, can help. Call them at (888) 438-4262, or visit their website, where you can also buy a "Bluegrass: Pick It Up!" folding chair for just $35.

Finally, whether or not you get to see them live, let me recommend a brand-new album by the Gibson Brothers, a group that IBMA voted as 1998's "Emerging Artists of the Year." Their latest is called Bona Fide (Sugar Hill SUG-CD 3965), a collection of 13 mostly original songs that is easily their best, and the one new bluegrass album that has spent the most time in my CD player lately.

Of the four core members of the group, two—Eric and Leigh Gibson—really are brothers, and you can tell from their tidy two-part harmonies that singing together is something they've done all their lives. The picking is fine, too, especially Leigh's understated guitar work and mandolinist Marc MacGlashan's more angular, adventurous solos, which call to mind a young Frank Wakefield. But the real attraction is the songwriting—something most contemporary bluegrass albums aren't known for. "The Open Road," the countrified opener and first single, is catchy as heck (I happened to talk to Leigh the day he wrote it, and he described it as one of those bits of inspiration that just comes in a flash), and "Railroad Line" and "Don't Forget the Coffee, Billy Joe" reach heights that one seldom finds in this genre, love it though I do.

As the great Tom T. Hall says in the liner notes, "My, but don't we love to hear brothers singing together!" When the results are this good, absolutely: Yes.