Every so often, a celebrated band moves beyond its public-purported bearings into conceptual territory that few could have surmised as their next big step. Ladies & Gentlemen is that big step for the revered progressive acoustic band, the Infamous Stringdusters.
Even if it makes total sense on paper to introduce a slew of talented women to what, so far, has been an all-guys’ affair, it’s more that the Stringdusters have become infamous for their individual talents that one could have more safely predicted that they would simply release another album devised amongst themselves — maybe with a collaboration or two here or there — and believed that they would have been right. The gentlemen here offer nothing more than their instruments to the show, featuring a talented lot of twelve ladies in Americana to front the vocal side of their latest album’s scene. This comes with the exception of final track “Hazosphere”, which is a totally instrumental, full-frontal sonic attack on the senses featuring trumpeter Jennifer Hardwick.
For those that know the Infamous Stringdusters, they know that the band bringing their virtuoso-level instrumental talents to the party is more than enough. Even if you might miss their voices in this outing, you can at least admit that the women up at the vocal bat are more than qualified to take up the gauntlet. They’ve left the classic bluegrass spontaneity-meets-newgrass musicality of previous records like their self-titled 2008 outing and 2012’s Silver Sky for something more formulaic, but in that each song carries a potent message to pair alongside its star siren.
Multifaceted masterclass interpreter Joan Osborne kicks Ladies & Gentlemen off in the best way possible, calling for the people of the world to think for themselves on the potent “Listen”. The track carries a rocking lilt to its chorus as Osborne croons with a tinge of grit, “Listen to the wind blow, listen to the rain fall / Listen to the dark clouds, listen to your heart call,” setting the tone in place fantastically for the remainder of the album’s themes of empowerment, inner socio-politics, and different stages of self-liberation. Elsewhere, Sara Watkins soars in self-appreciating celebration on the affecting “See How Far You’ve Come”, and Aoife O’Donovan bares her fangs on the lost-and-fine-with-it attitude of “Run to Heaven”. Trumpet also joins the ensemble on the Abigail Washburn-fronted “Rock and Roll”, and Lee-Ann Womack delivers her earnest plea for oneness across the world in “I Believe”.
Taking on a crew of especially talented and revered artists and having them collaborate with you on an album certainly wouldn’t be the worst of baseline ideas, but it means nothing without a vision, as has been seen in seemingly pointless, if not occasionally (and even unintentionally) offensive ideals (see: Paisley, Brad & Cool J, LL – “Accidental Racist”). Thankfully, the Infamous Stringdusters have once again proven that they have their heads on nice and straight with the collective greatness that is Ladies & Gentlemen. The end result is, arguably, the best album that the ‘Dusters have put out since their self-titled affair – plus, it does a heart good to know that these golden boys are keen on giving the girls their time to shine, all the same.