Music » Music Stories

John Hartford

Steam Powered Aereo-Takes (Rounder)


True acoustic music -- and, more specifically, bluegrass -- doesn't really change much. When it does, it usually throws up a roadblock between the fanatic traditionalists and the young punks with the banjos. On rare occasions, though, the new-and-different manages to create such an impact that people on both sides of the fence appreciate it for what it's worth. First released in 1971, John Hartford's Aereo-Plain was one such occasion. Bringing together Tut Taylor, Vassar Clements, Norman Blake, Randy Scruggs and John himself, the album stuck a reverent poker in the craw of traditional bluegrass music. After a year, though, the Aereo-Plain Band fell apart, and little was heard from the ensemble since.

That changed this year with Rounder Records' release of Steam Powered Aereo-Takes. It sounds clichéd, and it sounds made-up, but believe it or not, somebody cleaned out his garage and found 80-odd reels of outtakes from the Aereo-Plain sessions among the smelly shoes and tennis rackets. Aired out, the collection bounces erratically, reminding listeners of what was and could've been. Refreshingly, only a couple of the songs here appear on the original record ("Presbyterian Guitar" and "Because of You.") The rest of the CD is a collection of inspired covers of some bluegrass chestnuts and other Hartford originals, all previously unreleased.

Like most outtake collections, Aereo-Takes isn't as cohesive a grouping of songs as the original album, though it still does a damn fine job of conveying the same spirit. On the whole more relaxed than the original album, songs such as "Lady Jane" and "Strange Old Man" reveal a two-or-three-beer ease. Closing out the album is the wry "Howard Hughes Blues," speaking to -- and laughing at -- the madman billionaire lurking in all of us. Clements, Blake and Taylor provide a thick canvas of wooden sound behind Hartford's spoken-easy vocals. Mandolin, Dobro, fiddle and banjo all ring foot-tappingly along. The songs flow and skip and rise and fall, 18 tracks providing one deep look into the goofy, happy, sweet, sad, in-love-with-pickin' mind of John Hartford. The only thing missing is another 18 tracks.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.