by James M. Manheim
The last time I heard John Cowan live was in 1988, at the last Ann Arbor concert of the New Grass Revival, of which he was the lead singer. It was just before the band broke up, and its supremely talented individual performers Cowan, banjoist Bela Fleck, and mandolinist Sam Bush were already heading their separate ways creatively. Yet there was no way these musicians could put on a dull performance. The result was one of the strangest concerts I've ever heard, and in its way one of the most profoundly illustrative of the nature of artistic collaboration.
Between songs, the band members shifted uneasily, muttered at each other, argued under their breath. It was clear they didn't really want to be there. But then they started to sing and play, and the music was explosive. It was dissatisfied music, a bit abrupt, fiery, pushing constantly at the boundaries that defined it.
John Cowan's voice is like that all by itself. His tenor voice has no business being anywhere near bluegrass instruments; it's a startling, full-throated, vibrato yell that was made for arena rock, for Journey or Bon Jovi or some other grandiose band. And he has the long blond hair to go with it. When he came on the scene Cowan did not sound remotely like anybody else in bluegrass music, but bluegrass is where he ended up. And in New Grass Revival he had creative partners who forced other musics principally jazz and progressive rock into the disciplined confines of bluegrass, and who had an intensity that could stand up to his own.
After that band broke up, Cowan moved in the direction of rock and fronted a band called the Sky Kings. But with his latest release, New Tattoo, he's pushed his sound back to within a step of New Grass Revival, with lots of banjo and mandolin accompanied (at least on record) by light but tense percussion and
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