By Susan Weiand

Newgrass is alive and thriving as evidenced by the latest cd from the San Francisco-based band Free Peoples. The disc is titled It Is What It Is, and what it is is an acoustic good time with sweet harmonies, freewheeling flat-picking, and happy lyrics. The band consists of Tim Sawyer and Johnny Downer on vocals and guitar, Mike DiPirro on bass and vocals, and Bradley Leach on drums. Additional musicians on this disc include David Phillips on pedal steel/dobro, Bill Evans on banjo, and Chad Manning on fiddle. As an added bonus, the packaging features trippy Dali-esque cover art by famed poster artist Stanley Mouse.

The cd opens with the hot guitar picking and catchy sing-along vocals of "One World in Harmony," followed by "444 (# of the angels)" - a dreamy atmospheric number with lovely guitar and subdued vocals by Downer. The next offering, "Wild Wild West," is reminiscent of the jazzy offbeat jugband sound of Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks, while "Grass Ain't Greener" is a rollicking bluegrass tune with traditional three-part harmony, similar to the style of Yonder Mountain String Band.

"Nobody Knows," the only cover here, is an Allman Brothers Band song, but it's been rearranged for Free People's acoustic-stringed style. "I'll Be Alright" continues in a similar vein with nice fiddle and dobro solos. Next up, "Back to Nature" offers fine dual acoustic guitar leads throughout before the band gets down with a peppy mountain ditty, "Last Place I Feel Free."

Johnny Downer's vocals on "Looking for You" feature playful lyrics: "I'm looking for a girl like you, to keep me stoned at night," with the Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together" quoted at the end. Tasty pedal steel gives this one a bit of a New Riders of the Purple Sage feel. The disc closes with the banjo-driven "One Step at a Time."

The playing and the vocal arrangements are top-notch for the genre, and many of the original songs, written by Sawyer and Downer, sound like old mountain tune standards. Simplistic yet satisfying arrangements make the music easy to digest. Fans of David Grisman, Hot Buttered Rum String Band, Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth, or even the soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" will like this enjoyable cd.

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[Published on: 10/18/05]

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