By Blaine Schultz   Published Aug 21, 2006 at 5:10 AM
While you might get away with labeling Milwaukee's Salt Creek a bluegrass-influenced band, purists might not agree.  But that's just fine with the band.  As the new "Live" CD (ITMFA Records) proves, this is a band that lives for the moment and values the tightrope artistry of improvisation.

Built upon Guy Fiorentini's upright bass and Colin O'Brien's banjo, the lineup has shifted several times with Jim Eanelli and Peter Roller adding guitar, Eric Radloff and Jeremy Kuzinar on drums and Chris Waggoner on fiddle.
Despite the virtuoso talent, the key to this music is how well they play as a group, listening and playing off each other.  Creating space while not playing is just as important the notes that fill the air.  O'Brien's original "Tony's Baloney" begins as a clog-stomper but instead of aiming for Deadhead territory the tune opens into nearly eight minutes of pastoral splendor with not a whiff of jam-band stupor in sight.

Not afraid to tackle tradition, they plunk out a mid-tempo take on the Louvin Brothers' "Cash on the Barrelhead." They also push Frankie Lee Sims' "#9" into a setting where O'Brien's banjo and Eanelli's tremolo'd guitar break speak in tongues.
If Salt Creek has a motto it might be "Rules Are Made to Be Broken." As likely to be a string band, they easily saunter into a mazurka for the next tune.  And on Waggoner's "Little Ditty" they acquit themselves with a jazzy vocal arrangement.
We recently talked to Fiorentini about Salt Creek.
OMC: What is the status of the band, and who is the current lineup?

GF: We are booking on a selective basis, the gigs we have are listed on my Web site . We decided to take some time off last fall, after hitting it hard for over four years. We're all involved in other projects, and I had my second kid during this time as well. The current line-up includes myself, Colin O'Brien, Erik Radloff, Jim Eannelli and Chris Wagoner.
OMC: There is a lot of improvisation going on, that you guys as pickers seem to set up. How does this help to  keep the group vital?

GF: Part of this is the music that has influenced us individually: bluegrass, rock, and blues have aspects of improvisation; jazz is built upon it. Part of this is the fact that we gigged a lot more than we rehearsed so instead of deciding beforehand on how to structure a song we often just sort of went for it and kept the things that worked. We've developed structured arrangements over years of performing, but we still leave a few things to chance ... kind of like doors we can open when we want to. I'm not talking about taking solos, but rather as a band, trying to take the song someplace new; spontaneous composition.
OMC: The personalities of the individuals in any given band informs the group dynamic. You guys -- all lineups -- really seem to understand the importance of listening.

GF: Well, there is no way we could do what we do if everyone didn't have huge ears, and I guess that's a big part of the reason we've been able to maintain a sound. There's a lot going on in our music, but we leave enough space to accommodate it. This relates directly to your last question too. When the real magic happens we're not four guys anymore, but one entity and the music is just pouring through us. It's like the music is playing us.
OMC: Traditional bluegrass can be viewed as restrictive and foursquare -- if you ask a purist at least. Did this ever come up or did you guys decide coloring outside the lines was gonna be part of the band's m.o. from the start?
GF: Bill Monroe created a new style in the '40s by bringing together traditional Anglo folk music and African-American blues. We certainly enjoy a lot of music that sticks close to this early formulation, and there are many who do it much better than we do, but we'd rather play music that reflects our own experience than try to mimic somebody else. The idea of "pure" bluegrass is a misnomer anyway because it was a fusion music from the beginning. The banjo comes from Africa.
Salt Creek plays at The Gig Aug. 26.