The Tony Rice Unit :: Live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, July 17, 1982

Fresh off the recording of Backwaters, Tony Rice’s improv driven unit settled in on the stage at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica. The band in tow reproduced Rice’s recent studio line-ups with John Reischman on mandolin, Fred Carpenter on violin, Todd Phillips on Bass, and Rice holding down rhythm and lead guitar. Not a banjo in sight. The Reischman-penned “That Waltz” starts off the set. With the band seeming to dance upon clouds, it is immediately apparent that the next hour of music – defying classification at the time – had no plan to be grouped in with any standard progressive bluegrass of the era.

Over the prior decade, Rice had gradually and quietly been working to revise Bluegrass music into a form that suit the virtuosic capacity of his guitar playing. Working on nearly 100 recordings by the time of this show (and who knows how many live shows were under his belt in his 15 years of active performance at this point), Rice’s influence towered among the bluegrass and traditional music scene. From bluegrass guitar prodigy, to reworking the role of the instrument with Newgrass originators, The New South, to the genre bending acoustic gymnastics of David Grisman’s quintets, Rice went about this progression in stages—making the whole thing blend with his own records as a leader on Rounder. Of course, the formation of The Tony Rice Unit in 1979 signaled that the foundation had been laid and Rice had every piece set to get the sound in his head relayed to an audience hungry for innovation.

After a brief band introduction, the Unit fires into David Grisman’s classic “Gypsy Swing.” The group changes keys and speeds things up, but the homage to one of the first musicians to grant Rice the freedom the step out of the bounds of traditional bluegrass is obvious. And its apparent that the ensemble is having a blast. After bringing down the house, the group dives into two numbers from Backwaters to send the set into the stratosphere. “My Favorite Things,” and its clear nod to John Coltrane, finds the group playing with the celebrated theme and traversing every corner of the history of acoustic music—that’s bluegrass and jazz. Phillips’ bass keeps everyone on track while Rice experiments with Trane’s sheets of sound-style glissandos. Moments like this serve as reminder of what Rice could throw out when the reins were thrown off. “On Green Dolphin Street” permits the band to space out even further, experimenting with the idea that what is not played is, in fact, equal to what is. The quartet weaves through the wide-open composition with minimal effort and plenty of ideas manifest on the fly; hardly a tight traditional arrangement as customary in so many bluegrass interpretations. Written by Rice for Bill Evans, “Night Coach” finds the band transitioning into a more composed demeanor. Keeping the peaks and valleys approach of all great live ensembles intact, the tune allows the audience a reset after the excitement of “Old Gray Coat.” This proves doubly beneficial in preparation for the blissed out and sonically boundless “Devlin”—originally composed for Grisman’s 1979 Hot Dawg record and featured on The Unit’s Still Inside from the previous year.

Coming in as the encore is a near 10-minute “Common Ground.” It would go on to be the opening cut on Backwaters, embodying the idea of Rice’s preferred term for The Unit’s newfound progressions—Spacegrass. The piece is a blank canvas: specifically written by Rice to push his group to the limit of their instrumental prowess. Phillips’ bass work is absolutely filthy; a low end seemingly pulled from the bottom of a swamp. Notes conjured from the very pulse of the planet in the style of Cecil McBee; sliding into accents with ease; ensuring that the listener can never be rid of his presence. Reischman, Carpenter, and Rice weave solos through time and space—simultaneously driving each other further along into the cosmos. The experimentation fits so well within Rice’s arrangement that one hardly notices that solos are taking place. The result is a deeply organic music that feels as though it should carry on, ad infinitum. Nevertheless, the tune drifts away. Without a hard stop, the audience carries it home with themselves. A deeply personal artifact from America’s finest flat picker. | j rooney

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