In the late 1990s, Frank Solivan II could be heard at bars or folk festivals somewhere in Alaska almost every weekend. Burly and bald, his powerful tenor pipes and fabulous skills on mandolin and fiddle put him in high demand on the local country and bluegrass scene.
Then, after the release of his debut album, "I am a Rambler," he sort of disappeared. Until Monday night, when he stepped up on the stage of the Sluicebox beer barn at the Alaska State Fair.
About 40 old friends and fans who knew he was coming were on hand in the dark, low, dirt-floored pole building. They let out a whoop as he said, "Let's kick this pig," and lit into Ginger Boatwright's "Somebody's Missing You."
His strong voice rolled through the Sluicebox like a bowling ball en route to a strike. Then he segued into Eddy Raven's "Good Morning Country Rain."
For the next two hours, Solivan and his band, Dirty Kitchen, ripped out one pumped-up crowd-pleaser after another, covers of Earl Scruggs classics, songs by friends like Boatwright of Peters Creek, his former collaborator and inspiration, cuts from the first CD and a recently-released follow-up, "Selfish Tears."
With few exceptions, they played everything presto con brio. The fast tempo let Solivan and bandmates Mike Munford (banjo), Lincoln Meyers (guitar) and Stephan Custodi (bass), showcase virtuosic fireworks, trading jazz-like licks with blinding speed, their left hands looking like dancing tarantulas. By the end of the night the joint was packed and the cheers were raising the roof.
We caught up with him after the show and asked: Where you been, Son?
"I auditioned for the Navy band and got the gig," he said. The job came with the rank of E-6.
Shortly after "I am a Rambler" came out, he tried out for a guitar slot with the Navy's elite Country Current band. He was selected in part because, aside from being an outstanding six-stringer, his mastery of fiddle and mandolin gave the band some extra versatility when they broke out a bluegrass contingent.
Now stationed in Alexandria, Va., he's continued to perform nationally outside his military assignments, garnering high praise from aficionados of American "roots music."
This summer he was able to take a long road trip with some of the performers on "Selfish Tears." They played Denali Park earlier in the summer. On Tuesday, he opened for esteemed bluegrass mandolinist Doyle Lawson, also at the Alaska State Fair, the same place where Solivan won back-to-back fiddle contests some years ago.
Solivan grew up with music in his hometown, Modesto, Calif. His mom and dad were both active musicians and bluegrass enthusiasts. Young Frank won contests as a fiddler, banjo player and earned the position of second chair cello in the California All-State Honor Orchestra.
He came to Alaska where his mom was singing (she's featured in a cut on "Selfish Tears") and decided to stay out of a sense of adventure. He played first chair violin with the University of Alaska Anchorage Sinfonia, mentored younger musicians and amazed listeners at the Anchorage Folk Festival and bars. Four songs from his first CD took first place in various categories in the Alaska Public Radio Network's Song of the Year contest.
He also fell in love with a jewelry artist in Juneau, Leah Sturgis. They eventually married. One song he wrote for her during their courtship, "Day to Day," took Honorable Mention in the 2007 International Songwriting Contest.
His return to Alaska was sweet but brief. "We're catching the red-eye to Portland on Tuesday night," he said on Monday. After a one-night stand there on Wednesday, the band was heading for Yosemite, Calif., for the big Strawberry Music Festival.
A busy schedule of shows across the country follows, culminating in the World Bluegrass Convention in Nashville, Tenn., at the end of the month.
Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM