Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Seldom Scene at B.B. King's

With the greatest bands, it sometimes is difficult to put your finger on exactly what makes them different from other bands. Seemingly all of the same pieces might be there -- musicianship, vocal talent, song selection -- with other bands and yet something fails to gel. Back in December, Sarah and I took in a bluegrass show at B.B. King's Blues Club in Times Square where this was on display.

The opening band, Greensky Bluegrass from Kalamazoo, Michigan (a place which clearly should produce bluegrass bands), had a good sound to them. Featuring banjo, guitar, mandolin, bass and dobro, they played tightly together and had good solo chops, too, particularly mandolinist Paul Curry and dobro player Anders Beck. They did a nice job with "Jesus on the Mainline," and on an extended jam, everyone got to show off his skills.

Yet somehow, their set lacked energy. The crowd clapped politely and applauded the solos, but there was no sense of being on the edge, no sense of rollicking forward, no sense of forgetting that there would be a second act.

For a moment, I thought that maybe it was me and the mood that I was in, but then the Seldom Scene came out, and -- as one might expect from these guys -- they blew the roof off the place from the first song. Even though Ben Eldridge was having some monitor issues, the band just ripped straight into the Stanley Brothers' "Too Sweet to Last," and they weren't going to look back. In fact, they pretty much blasted through "Walk Through This World with Me" (despite its slower tempo), "Sad Old Train" and "110 in the Shade" -- the following three songs.

Now, the comparison is a little unfair. The Seldom Scene are one of the best name-brand bluegrass bands out there. They've been playing in one form or another since 1971 (although Ben Eldridge is the only founding member still in the group), and each member of the band has wide-ranging bluegrass experience and serious accolades following his name.

Also, this was the first time that the band had played in New York since a 2001 show -- 2001! Who books this city? -- in Battery Park (which I remember attending with the late WKCR DJ Doug Tuchman). So maybe they had seven years of love for New York City to let loose on stage.

The band -- Dudley Connell on guitar; Lou Reid on mandolin; Fred Travers on dobro; Ronnie Simpkins on bass and Ben Eldridge on banjo -- was augmented by the presence of Ben Eldridge's son Chris Eldridge on guitar. Chris was on loan from Punch Brothers -- a band that has been covered on this blog here, and I had the same complaint as the last time that I saw that band: he was too quiet! I don't know if it a microphone issue, an instrument issue or something about Chris's style, but I definitely want this guy to be turned up next time! When he as been up at WKCR, and I've gotten to see him up close, it is jaw-dropping playing, and concert audiences should get to hear it, too. He took a particularly sweet solo on "I'm Blue and Lonesome, Too."

Lou Reid's playing was also great throughout the night. He tossed in some particularly good licks on "Lay Down Sally."

One thing about the Seldom Scene is their sheer vocal power. On "110 in the Shade," Dudley Connell just belted it out, and Lou Reid nailed "Breaking New Ground" toward the end of the set. The Seldom Scene version of "Darlin' Corey" was a team effort, and you could have told me that the choral ending was J.S. Bach, and I would have believed you.

This is not to say that the band played perfectly. They kicked off John Prine's "Paradise" at too quick a tempo and then had to rush through the song, and they also got a little sloppy on the set-closing "Rider." But it is to say that they put on a hard-driving and sometimes captivating show. (And I also got to hear the two songs that I most want to hear at a Seldom Scene show (and back-to-back, no less): Bob Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather" and Herb Pedersen's "Wait a Minute.")

The set list looked like this:

  • Too Sweet to Last

  • Walk Through This World with Me

  • Sad Old Train

  • 110 in the Shade

  • This Morning at Nine

  • I'm Blue and Lonesome, Too

  • Love of the Mountains

  • Darlin' Corey

  • Paradise

  • Hometown Blues

  • He Was a Friend of Mine

  • Rollin' and Tumblin'

  • Boots of Spanish Leather

  • Wait a Minute

  • Big Train from Memphis

  • Heart and Soul

  • Lay Down Sally

  • California Cottonfields

  • Breaking New Ground

  • The C&0 Canal

  • Rider

  • ENCORE: Another Lonesome Morning

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