Bob Westfall's well-rehearsed jazzgrass quartet has been a Tuesday-night fixture at the Angelic Brewing Co. for many years, much to the delight of acoustic music fans who cleave to the hybrid style of mandolin player David "Dawg" Grisman. Affable leader Westfall isn't quite the personality that Jerry Garcia's old picking partner is, but his mandolin work is plenty strong. A longtime pro, he can fly through single-note runs, but he's also quite content to provide skittering, metronome-quality comping behind his bandmates.
That generosity often pays off on Beautifully Mad. Instead of meandering jam-band style through a collection of overextended solos, the spirited quartet engages in a democratic musical conversation that both honors and expands upon the string-band tradition. The sprightly opening cover of Grisman's "Japan" could have been a flashy showcase for Westfall's digits; instead, he mostly lingers in the background, giving violinist Chris Wagoner a chance to gussy up mountain music with his concert-hall-quality technique. On a romantic cover of "Eleanor Rigby," the two form a more equal partnership, trading piquant interpretations of the tune's bittersweet chorus, then doubling up on the final verse in a warm expression of aural simpatico that nearly brings tears.
Other tracks give bassist Mary Gaines (also Wagoner's wife and steady musical companion) room to step well beyond the basic, root-tone-plonking 'grass approach favored in more traditional outfits. Her syncopated walking on Darol Anger's Gypsy jazz gavotte "Dysentary Stomp" isn't the first thing you take note of, but it turns what could have been just another well-meaning tribute to Stephane and Django into a thrilling collective performance.
Westfall does step out front, of course, and when he does, his work is always tasteful. But he really ups the excitement whenever he loosens his collar a little and dirties up his playing. That happens on his own "Coastin'," Grisman's wistful "Blue Midnight" and also the self-penned title track, a chiding jazzgrass answer to Haydn's "Surprise Symphony" that at one point has Gaines literally shouting with delight.