Album Review: Old & In the Way – Live at Sonoma State 11/4/73

Article Contributed by Gabriel David Barkin | Published on Monday, January 15, 2024

Old and In the Way were (ironically) mostly not old – and certainly not at all in anyone’s way! – when they gathered in 1973 to play about 50 live shows. Fiddler Vassar Clements, born in 1928 and having joined Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys at 21, was still under 50. The other members of OAITW were only about 30 at the time, give or take a few years.

After spending a year with OAITW playing the banjo (the first stringed instrument he learned to play as a teen), Jerry Garcia soon returned his focus to playing guitar in the Grateful Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band. John Kahn, who had been playing bass for Garcia’s side projects since 1970, remained by Jerry’s side on stage and in the studio until they both passed away in the mid-1990s. Clements, who appeared on over 200 albums in his life, was never lacking in invitations to record or play live with other musicians. He died in 2005.

Guitar player and lead OAITW vocalist/yodeler Peter Rowan (who had also played for Bill Monroe) moved forward with a storied solo career. The same can be said for 'dawg' music pioneer and mandolin virtuoso David Grisman. Both of them continue to carry the bluegrass torch and each has also led numerous explorations into other avenues of folk, Americana, and jazz.

It’s now fair to categorize their classic album, recorded at San Francisco’s Boarding House, as 'old'. (Fun fact: the album was recorded by the “Wall of Sound” engineer and LSD impresario Stanley Owsley.)

But they’re still not in the way. Most definitely not in the “just ignore the old guys in the corner” way.

To the contrary, the original album was for decades the best-selling bluegrass record of all time – finally unseated by the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack after more than 25 years. (Because, of course, all records are made to be broken!) It’s no exaggeration to observe that thousands and thousands of music fans, especially Deadheads, got turned on to bluegrass by OAITW.

Over the half century since OAITW played their last show, a few other live recordings have been released. Now David Grisman has produced Old & In The Way – Live At Sonoma State 11/4/73, available from Grisman’s own Acoustic Disc label. This Sunday afternoon show, one of OAITW’s final performances, was captured on tape by noted music photographer Ed Perlstein. The recording is available for download in Hi-Definition (24-bit, 96 kHz) sound, ensuring crisp and clear listening. The cover art explains that the download is “100% handmade.”

The album eases into “Going to the Races,” a ditty written and recorded by the Country Gentlemen in 1957. The intro and almost all of the first verse are missing; perhaps the tape machine started rolling a bit late. But after Rowan hits a few falsettos to establish his own “country gentleman” credentials, and with Kahn thumping out the low part of the high lonesome sound, the OAITW boys are off and running in high gear.

Most of the familiar tunes are here; “Panama Red,” “Wild Horses,” “Pig in a Pen,” and so on. Other songs like the classic fiddle tune “Orange Blossom Special” and Bob McDill’s “Catfish John” (a Jerry Garcia Band staple also recorded by the Dead) also make an appearance. Many of these tracks were omitted from the famous 1975 record but were included on last year’s four-disc set "Live at the Boarding House: The Complete Shows" (Acoustic Disc) and on a handful of other “official” releases over the years.

A handful of songs, on the other hand, have not appeared on any of the live releases to date. Grisman takes the lead vocal on “Eating Out of Your Hand,” a song originally written and recorded by Bill Harrell in 1960. It’s a jaunty song full of gusto, with high-flying solos in turn by Clements, Grisman, and Garcia. Grisman himself wrote “Fanny Hill,” a breathtaking instrumental that first appeared on his 1964 debut solo studio album.

Another pair of songs that have not appeared on any of the OAITW releases are sung by guest Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. (He is introduced without mention of being a “Ramblin’ man). “Tramp On the Street” was occasionally sung by Hank Williams, although he never recorded it. This song, written by Grady and Hazel Cole in the Depression era, was based on an 1877 poem titled "Only a Tramp" (by Dr. Addison Crabtree), and it asks the listener to consider if Jesus would get better treatment today than the homeless in your hometown. Pardon the meandering, but any song sung by Ramblin’ Jack deserves a ramblin’ introduction.

Elliott followed up with Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train.” The ramble here is that Rodgers had rewritten a song which originated in the 19th century in England. Many versions of the song were published in songbooks long before Rodgers took a stab. In the OAITW version, Elliott yodels, Clements swings, and it’s likely there were two-steppers dancing in the crowd at Sonoma State during this old-timey number. (Rodgers, and hence Elliott, may be forgiven for calling it “’Frisco.”)

The show ends with Rowan crooning “Midnight Moonlight” before the band takes off for a whirlwind ride on the aforementioned “Orange Blossom Special.” Clements does his masterful work on the finale to sound like an overly zealous train horn, while the rest of the band clickety-clacks the rhythm like steel wheels hustling down a mountainside on iron tracks.

It’s hard to imagine the young members of OAITW considering the timelessness of their performance that day. Here we are fifty years later, eagerly listening to these tunes and celebrating the auspicious contribution OAITW made to the bluegrass pantheon. This music may be old, but it ain’t in the way. It IS the way!

To purchase a download of this amazing album, visit Acoustic Disc - Old and In the Way Live at Sonoma State 11/4/73 Download.


    Going to the Races
    Catfish John
    Eating Out of Your Hand
    Lonesome Fiddle Blues
    Land of the Navajo
    Old & in the Way Breakdown
    Panama Red
    Pig in a Pen
    Fanny Hill
    The Hobo Song
    Wild Horses
    White Dove
    Drifting Too Far from the Shore
    Uncle Pen
    High Lonesome Sound
    Tramp On the Street*
    Waiting for a Train*
    Midnight Moonlight
    Orange Blossom Special