The last time I heard John Cowan live was in 1988, at the last Ann Arbor concert of the New Grass Revival, of which he was the lead singer. It was just before the band broke up, and its supremely talented individual performers — Cowan, banjoist Bela Fleck, and mandolinist Sam Bush — were already heading their separate ways creatively. Yet there was no way these musicians could put on a dull performance. The result was one of the strangest concerts I've ever heard, and in its way one of the most profoundly illustrative of the nature of artistic collaboration.

Between songs, the band members shifted uneasily, muttered at each other, argued under their breath. It was clear they didn't really want to be there. But then they started to sing and play, and the music was explosive. It was dissatisfied music, a bit abrupt, fiery, pushing constantly at the boundaries that defined it.

John Cowan's voice is like that all by itself. His tenor voice has no business being anywhere near bluegrass instruments; it's a startling, full-throated, vibrato yell that was made for arena rock, for Journey or Bon Jovi or some other grandiose band. And he has the long blond hair to go with it. When he came on the scene Cowan did not sound remotely like anybody else in bluegrass music, but bluegrass is where he ended up. And in New Grass Revival he had creative partners who forced other musics — principally jazz and progressive rock — into the disciplined confines of bluegrass, and who had an intensity that could stand up to his own.

After that band broke up, Cowan moved in the direction of rock and fronted a band called the Sky Kings. But with his latest release, New Tattoo, he's pushed his sound back to within a step of New Grass Revival, with lots of banjo and mandolin accompanied (at least on record) by light but tense percussion and a bit of electric guitar. The songs come from a variety of the most innovative songwriters working in country and bluegrass music today, including Darrell Scott, Mark Simos, and Ed Snodderly of the late, lamented progressive bluegrass duo the Brother Boys. They range from deadly serious to roughly humorous: "Carla's Got a New Tattoo" may be the only bluegrass song on record that refers to eyebrow piercing. Musically they divide between souped-up classic bluegrass patterns and pieces with funky rhythms that bring out a warm streak of blue-eyed soul in Cowan's style. On love songs and big bluegrass jams, Cowan has a remarkably well-preserved tenor voice for someone who's spent well over thirty years making music in small clubs for small change.

A few bluegrass singers have followed John Cowan's departure from the classic high-lonesome bluegrass vocal sound. Among them are the Gibson Brothers, Eric and Leigh, from upstate New York, who are formidable original songwriters themselves. They appear with Cowan on a fabulous double bill at the Ark on Friday, June 30 — in these parts, the progressive bluegrass event of the year.

[Review published June 2006]