Some readers may know that a large amount of my earliest musical memories were with AJ Lee. Whether it was with Kids on Bluegrass, or our travels with the Schwartz brothers in OMGG, I have heard and seen a large portion of AJ’s artistic growth. The same can be said for her band mates Sully Tuttle and Jesse Fichman. Similar to AJ, I can’t count the amount of joyous musical moments I have had with these diverse and incredible musicians. Along with their musicianship, I have always seen these musicians as professionals who are dedicated to the concept of bluegrass and the art of music as a whole. Due to their professionalism, I was not surprised to hear such a diverse and cohesive project that does a brilliant job of featuring each player while also keeping focus on the incredible female singer songwriter.
AJ’s singer songwriter sensibilities are placed on center stage to begin the album in “Cold Feet”, an introduction that will catch many bluegrass fans of guard. With only her mandolin and her voice, Lee wants to “Confess my confessions and warm these cold feet”. A daunting task for the album to satisfy, but the transition into “Still Love you Still” shows that the project is up to the task. After almost three minutes of secluded voice and mandolin a strong high to low guitar strum beckons in fiddle responses from special guest Nate Grower and a driving beat from bass player Chad Bowen whose grooves vary as much as the material throughout the twelve-track 50 minute project.
After the energy gain brought from the instrumental virtuosity, the title track “Like I Used To” brings Sully onto electric guitar and Jeff Wilson onto drums. Along with instrumental strength built in by the lineup, vocal backup initiated by Fishman and Bowen adds power to the track and makes the drums much more momentous. This track also brings the continuing motif of either mandolin solo introductions or mandolin and guitar duo intros that the group has enhanced and perfected throughout their time together.
While the album leaves a very strong impression, small tweaks could have brought an even more complete listening experience. One simple switch would be switching the order of “Crossing the Blue Skies” and “To Mine”. While the former relies on the electric guitar similar to “Like I Used To” and falls under a slower bpm than the already mild-paced title track which causes an unnecessary lull, the former song brings an immediately perked up energy ushered by AJ’s percussive introduction. This track also contains possibly the greatest instrumental moment on the project when again the mandolin and guitar harmonies sparkle and seem to arrive out of nowhere. While soon degraded into a blues full of flat thirds they soon return to the chorus melody with its descending long winding melodies contrasted by a syncopated build up leading to the high note pay off.
While the middle portion of this album focuses on electric guitar and a more rock oriented concept like “Dry River”, I believe the more novel and possibly horizon expanding moments come on tracks like “Sweet Wine” and “The Air” where each individual has their jazz sensibilities expressed. The member who takes most advantage of this is clearly Jesse Fichman who shows his proficiency in both melodica and clarinet on these two tracks respectively.
Whether it be hard-charging drum filled rock energy, a calmer jazz influenced sound, or the pristine reoccurrences of the mandolin guitar duets, especially the one that concludes the album “Dad”, Blue Summit’s musicianship remains a staple of their sound, and AJ’s songwriting and vocals are the perfect backbone and face to this project that all of us in the California Bluegrass Association hope will bring this band to new heights whether it be the La Roache Bluegrass festival in France or a nomination for the Momentum Awards at the International Bluegrass Music Associations World of Bluegrass.