Monday, April 28, 2008

The Greatest Resophonic Guitar Player on the Planet

Last Wednesday night, Allan and I made our way to B.B. King's for a night of country and newgrass music. I think that's what you might call it. I'm not really sure.

The opening act was The Wrights -- in their New York City debut! Adam and Shannon Wright are a husband-and-wife songwriting team from Nashville. They opened their set with the only song of theirs that I would know: "You're the Kind of Trouble," a terrific tune that Solomon Burke put on his masterful Nashville CD. (That disc, recorded at Buddy and Julie Miller's house with an all-star cast of musicians is a really fine collection of music and highly recommended.) After having opened with one of their songs that has been recorded by someone else, they segued into an unusual cover song of their own, giving us their take on Boston-based alternative rock group Morphine's song "In Spite of Me." They did a pretty nice job with that one.

They talked about being from Georgia and sang "On the Rocks," after telling the New York City crowd that it was "not like crack." That was a jazzy, nightclub-style duet between the two. Two more covers appeared later in the set: Linda Rondstadt's "These Memories of You" from the Trio album with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris and "In the Summertime," a Roger Miller song. They wrapped up the set with a song that Adam had written for Shannon called "You Got the Thorns" (with the lyric concluding "I got the rose.").

Their set was fine, but the stage at B.B. King's kind of ate them up. They simply did not have the stage presence to really lure the crowd in. So people sat and listened relatively politely but did not get all that excited about the set. The Wrights seemed lost on the big stage and let some downtime slip in between songs. It reminded me of Shaz Oye's opening set before Black 47's St. Patrick's Day set, where the B.B. King's stage with its two screens and constant light show had similarly eaten up a performer made for a more intimate venue.

When Jerry Douglas and his band took the stage, however, they were in full command of the room. They opened with a real spacegrass number: "Unfolding," a tune written by bassist Edgar Meyer and featuring a marvelous bass solo by Jerry Douglas Band member Todd Parks. (Sadly, after this fantastic opening solo, Todd Parks really didn't get to show off his stuff again during the show.) "The Wild Rumpus" and "We Hide and Seek" followed. The melodic figure in "We Hide and Seek" is super-inviting, this slowly descending ripple of music, essentially three notes with a couple of grace notes thrown in that keeps coming back.

Luke Bulla on fiddle consistently impressed throughout the night. From "Unfolding" onto "Route Irish" (a tune written by Jerry Douglas for the troops in Iraq and referring to the road from the airport to the Green Zone), his playing was dead on. Vocal duties also were his, so Luke sang Johnny Cash's "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" (on which Flux switched to a lap steel) and later a song called "The Suit." His voice is quite pleasant, although the Johnny Cash song stands out in my mind as a little too pretty, and the other song has not stayed with me.

Jerry Douglas's introductions to the songs were spoken slowly and with rural grit. After introducing "The Emphysema Two-Step" with the story of it being a response to a joke by an unnamed accordion player about "The Emphysema Waltz," he said, "Nice talkin' to you." I was able to later twice get Allan to laugh out loud during quiet moments in the show by repeating this simple phrase.

Introducing a tune by the jazz fusion band Weather Report, Jerry quoted some wise words from long-time Bill Monroe fiddler Kenny Baker: "You put too many chords in your number, you'll ruin your number." But they pressed ahead anyway under the guitar leadership of Guthrie Trapp, who had some mighty fast fingers but played in the "get as many notes in as you can without concern for phrasing or flavor" style that Cody Kilby also favors. I bow down at his virtuosity, but I can't entirely get behind it at the same time. It seems like it's not put to the best use possible.

Jazz also reared its head (overtly -- it was all over the place obviously) in the form of "Cave Bop," a song that Jerry wrote after -- this is what he told us -- imbibing some magical substances at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and having a dream in which Fred Flintstone and Charlie Parker were riding in Fred Flintstone's car, which was being pushed along by Barney Rubble. Whoa. This was followed by the Alison Krauss + Union Station setlist standard "The Choctaw Hayride." The encore included "Patrick Meets the Bricbats" and one other tune.

The show was solid, but not out-of-this-world. I would have taken one or two more vocal numbers. After all, Flux does some of his finest work when he's backing up Dan Tyminski and Alison Krauss or playing with Peter Rowan. It would be great if he could incorporate this into his own band, too. Luke Bulla really did impress me, both with his fiddling and his smooth vocals, and Todd Park's opening bass solo was terrific. And at the end of the day, Jerry Douglas is the greatest resophonic guitar player on the planet, so one needs to sit back and soak that in whenever possible.

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