Classic Hot Rize with Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers
CLASSIC HOT RIZE WITH RED KNUCKLES & THE TRAILBLAZERS (RECORDED LIVE, JULY 28, 1987)
What struck me while watching this excellent concert video is how boyish and babyfaced lead singer/mandolin player Tim O’Brien, bass player/lead singer Nick Forster, banjoist/harmony singer Pete Wernick, and the late great guitar flatpicker Charles Sawtelle were when this TV appearance was taped live twenty years ago on July 28, 1987, and Hot Rize was already in fullthrottle ascendancy on the bluegrass scene.
Dressed nattily in western suits and ties, these young prodigies serve up some thrilling performances in this hourlong concert, originally videotaped for the Lonesome Pine Special TV show in Louisville, Ky. In terms of poise, precision, and musical prowess, these guys had it all in spades. The set list includes Hot Rize mainstays such as “Untold Stories” (penned by O’Brien) and “Don’t Make Me Believe” (a Forster original), and bluegrass classics (including Kirk McGee’s “Blue Night” and Keith Whitley’s “Great High Mountain”) along with 12 additional tracks, both old and new (at least new in the late 1980s).
And wherever Hot Rize went, the band’s alter ego, the delightfully antic, honky-tonk and western swing revival band Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, was eagerly waiting in the wings. Here, this lighthearted “band within a band” turns in a delightful fivesong miniset. For all its broad comedy, the Trailblazers’ music reminds listeners that, despite their questionable wardrobe choices and antic stage presence, Red and his boys sang and played the honky-tonk and western swing sounds of longgone artists like Bob Wills, Johnny Horton, and Al Dexter with all the same poise, mastery, and affection that Hot Rize brought to the traditional bluegrass tunes they reprised.
Along with about an hour of memorable music and performance, this DVD presentation is rounded out with some interview snippets where O’Brien and Forster talk about Hot Rize’s (and the Trailblazers’) origins, influences, and musical evolution.
Along with the Johnson Mountain Boys, the Colorado-based Hot Rize was one of the memorable Bluegrass bands of the 1980s: both made a strong impact on the scene, introduced many to real Bluegrass, then retired after a decade or so.
It’s wonderful that members of the band were able to retrieve this show from July 1987, and release it on DVD. The show was originally filmed as part of the Lonesome Pine Special series for Kentucky Educational TVâ€”the quality of the video and the sound is excellent, and the group was in top form, with fine lead vocals by Tim O’Brien and lovely, tight trios and duets.
The late Charles Sawtelle contributes some nice guitar work and Pete Wernick’s banjo picking is particularly sharp & tasteful. The choice of songs is superb and includes fine versions of RADIO BOOGIE, DON’T MAKE ME BELIEVE, JUST LIKE YOU, WON’T YOU COME & SING FOR ME, UNTOLD STORIES and an excellent KEEP YOUR LAMP TRIMMED & BURNING.
As if this isn’t enough, there is also a 4 song segment that features the band’s alter ego, Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers, doing their country/western thing. (Many of today’s younger groups could learn a thing or two here about really entertaining a crowd). It’s also a welcome treat to see the band neatly dressed in sharp suits (not coincidentally The Johnson Mountain Boys also showed their respect for their audiences in similar neat attire).
There are brief interview segments with O’Brien and Nick Forster which add a nice touch to a very fine DVD. Lest we forget to say it, this band showed it was entirely possible to appeal to a young, contemporary crowd while still playing tough, traditional music.