Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Bruce Springsteen of Bluegrass?

One of the best bluegrass bands out there, Blue Highway, rolled into Joe's Pub last night for a 9:30 p.m. set. (Yes, here in New York, you have to stay up late on a school night for your bluegrass fix.) They had been on the road for three weeks and were coming from an appearance at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival (which I have heard great things about but never have actually made it to). Apparently, they had had a day of play around New York with lots of exotic New York experiences like cab rides that are tough to come by in east Tennessee.

There are so many good things to say about this band--so many IBMA awards, so many great CDs, etc.--that the introduction went on for a ridiculously long time, which must have been particularly annoying for the band, since they were standing on the stage for the duration of the welcome speech. There was a buzz during the introduction, and it was still present as the band stepped up to the microphones. So after the long introduction, there was a brief reset while the soundman eliminated the buzz. And to his credit, it was brief, and the band got going pretty quickly.

The set looked like this:

  • "Marbletown" - the title track from their second most recent CD

  • Instrumental with a cool (and rather rare) banjo/mandolin kick-off

  • "Born with a Hammer in My Hand"

  • The band introduced itself: "We've been together for 14 years. ... Yes, we could get married in West Virginia. ... We have far surpassed the average lifetime of a bluegrass band, which is six weeks."

  • "Through the Window of a Train" - the title track from the brand new disc; this features some sweet Wayne Taylor vocals. The line on this band is that there are four great vocalists in the group (with apologies to Rob Ickes who steps back into the shadows when it's an a capella number), but Wayne Taylor without a doubt is my favorite. He has great tone, great feeling and great control. I could listen to him sing all day.

  • "Some Day" - the four singers gathered around Wayne Taylor's microphone to sing this gospel song (and Rob Ickes shrunk back into the shadows); very nicely done, although Jason Burleson's bass vocals were rather quiet

  • Shawn Lane said, "Man it was tough singing through all of that curry" referring to their East 6th Street dinner, and Rob Ickes gave a little sitar impersonation on the dobro.

  • Instrumental with solid dobro playing from Rob Ickes; Tim Stafford's guitar--which looked like one of those new black carbon models--had a lot of buzz on it

  • "Life of a Travelin' Man" - on this song, the band finally hit their stride, I thought; everything had been fine on the earlier tunes, but this one they really nailed, and they came into their own

  • "Danville Pike" - staying in stride, Jason Burleson kicked this off with some hot banjo, and the whole band burned through this horse racing song

  • "Where Did the Morning Go" - Shawn Lane switched from mandolin to guitar, and Jason Burleson picked up the mandolin--now that's pretty rare, a banjo player who also feels at home on the mandolin: he even took a solo!

  • The band spoke about all being songwriters, saying that they realized very early on that they would never be able to play Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs songs as well as Bill, Lester and Earl had played them. I both respect this logic and also think about how much bluegrass fans like those "festival favorites," and how Blue Highway actually does seem to have enough familiar referents up their sleeve (particularly in the gospel department) to have tunes that the average fan will know in every set

  • "Tears Fell on Missouri" - a CMT-style country song

  • Tim Stafford busted out his Ralph Stanley impersonation at this point:

    "Oh, death, won't you spare me over Britney Spears."

    And then he started riffing on what if Dr. Stanley were hanging out with Led Zeppelin. It was pretty good material.

  • "Blues on Blues"

  • Shawn Lane sang a song about a woman leaving that involved a train metaphor, but I didn't catch the name

  • "Still Climbing Mountains"

  • After hearing Shawn Lane sing that one, my friend Abigail turned to me and said, "He's like the Bruce Springsteen of bluegrass! He's unassuming on the outside, but he has this emotional core and this way of singing songs."

  • "Lonesome Road Blues" - Jason Burleson takes the lead on banjo on this one with Shawn Lane switching to fiddle; the playing was a little sloppy, I'm sad to say

  • Tim Stafford decided to teach us a word from East Tennessee at this point in the show. That word is "'preciations." It is shorthand for, "Thank you, I appreciate what you are doing very much." For the rest of the show, shouts of "'preciation!" were heard around the room--mostly from the stage from Tim Stafford, actually.

  • "Two Soldiers" - about soldiers on funeral detail; Jason Burleson was on guitar for this one

  • "We were nominated for a Grammy for our gospel album. We went to Los Angeles for the ceremeonies." "Yes, we did." "We watched Randy Travis win that Grammy." "Yes, we did."

  • "Wondrous Love" - this is the one for which I had been waiting for; they do such a great job with this one--even Rob Ickes sings on the final chorus! The only bummer was again Jason Burleson's vocals; his bass just wasn't coming through as loud as it does on the CDs.

  • "Nothing But A Whippoorwill" - Rob Ickes and Shawn Lane gave this like a three-minute dobro and mandolin intro--I half-expected them to bust into "Eight Miles High"; Tim Stafford co-wrote the tune with Steve Gulley, who used to be part of Mountain Heart and now is a member of Grasstowne

  • ENCORE: "Little Maggie" - Wayne Taylor sang this old chestnut--see, they find a way to sneak them in--with gusto, and Shawn Lane smoked on mandolin

  • 2nd ENCORE: a Scruggs-style banjo instrumental with some more hot Shawn Lane pickin'--hotter than Bruce Springsteen can pick, I daresay...

I've seen this band do better shows. I think they were a bit tired from being on the road, and they just didn't really click into being as tight as they can be (either vocally or instrumentally), but it was still a terrific show, and without a doubt, Blue Highway is the band to see if you can't get those Springsteen tickets.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Dude, I am just catching up on some of your older posts, but I attended Joe Val this year (and last) and posted pictures and videos, that I am happy to share. You can hit this page:

There is a link for Blue Highway, along with several other acts who were there. Loved Frank Wakefield, The SteelDrivers, Alecia Nugent and a surprise entry, The Abrams Brothers, youngsters from Canada with a progressive sound.

Oh, and the Seldom Scene, even without the late John Duffey, still can kick in some dynamic harmonies!

Hope you enjoy...