Recorded at the Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis, MO, Ragin’ Live marks Rhonda Vincent’s first live album and first time she’s used her band The Rage on a recording. Released in the spring of 2005, it’s a “greatest hits” album of sorts as she and the band run down their most popular tunes with a palpable fiery energy and immaculate musicianship that comes from performing in front of a crowd.
The set opens with an introduction by Hank Janney, a Bluegrass DJ from Gettysburg, PA before the band rips into a spirited version of “Kentucky Borderline.” Excellent cover tunes follow, such as “Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin,” and their versions of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Jimmie Rogers’ “Muleskinner Blues,” Flatt and Scruggs “So Happy I’ll Be,” and Bobby Osborne’s “Bluegrass Express.” Each bring something new to the respective tune and because of their consistently high quality, it’s difficult to pick a favorite.
As with her studio recordings, Vincent (and this time the band) shines brightest on the up-tempo material. Lyrical tunes such as “One Step Ahead of the Blues” and “Martha White Theme” are great, but the full breathe of their prowess as a band is best displayed on the incredible instrumental tracks. Hunter Berry’s fantastic fiddle lick at the start of the old-time country “Me Too” gives way to a fabulous mix of fiddle, mandolin and dobro while “Road Rage” makes excellent use of Kenny Ingram’s superb abilities with the banjo. “Son Drop In” is another fine showcase of Barry’s fiddling, and “Frankie Bell” makes sufficient use of Vincent’s other talent as a first rate mandolin picker.
I always felt the decision to pack the seat full of high-energy numbers works well because it gives the recording a sunny and upbeat disposition even if the lyrical content is decidedly somber. The record beams with the band’s enjoyment of playing and singing together and that combination bring a welcomed relaxation to the proceedings.
But it also works in favor of the slower numbers, which stand out against the rip-roaring backdrop. It’s been well documented that Vincent is one of the greatest country and bluegrass vocalists to ever live, and she shows that here.
The mournful “You Can’t Take It With You When You Go” is even more pensive in a live setting as it was on One Step Ahead while “Ghost of a Chance” may be Vincent’s most chilling vocal to date. Equally stunning is “Last Best Place,” the quieter of the concert’s two spiritual numbers and an irresistible concoction of Barry’s fiddle behind Vincent’s vocal.
My favorite, though, are two of the album’s standout moments. “Missouri Moon,” an original tune from One Step Ahead, is a beautiful love gone wrong story famed beneath the Missouri Moon that saw it all:
There’s a full moon out tonight
all the stars are shining bright
the same way that they used to do
And it reminds me of
the night we fell in love
Beneath that old Missouri moon
Who’d have ever thought we’d end this way
As I watch you go the tears are rolling down my face
Who’d have ever thought I’d be so blue
As I cry beneath that old Missouri moon
The other is Carl Jackson’s “Homecoming,” which closes the concert. Framed by the light strumming of acoustic guitar, it perfectly showcases the band’s tight harmonies and brings new meaning to the lyrics of reuniting with family in heaven. It also showcases just how much Vincent’s grown as a vocalist since 1991, when she first recorded the tune on Timeless and True Love.
As a whole, Ragin’ Love is as close to a masterpiece as any album, a perfect showcase for Vincent and The Rage. The fullness of their abilities – from wild abandon to beautifully constrain – is on display here in stunning fashion. Sure, the talking bits were rudely edited and translate horribly to CD (they should’ve been isolated in their own tracks) but it doesn’t matter because the exceptional quality of the music is what takes center stage and rightfully so. And that alone makes Ragin’ Live essential listening for anyone who’s a fan of high quality music.