Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Scoring Second Encores from Pete Rowan

Late May has seen three solid bluegrass shows at B.B. King's. Last Friday, the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience was there. Tonight, David Bromberg is playing. And last night, the mighty Peter Rowan was in town.

First off, the turnout was pitiful. Hello New York? Is anybody home? I know that it is the Tuesday after Memorial Day weekend, but this is Peter Rowan -- a music legend, a great songwriter and a fabulous entertainer! I've seen him probably 10 times in my life and have never been disappointed. And I was not disappointed last night either, but I expected the club to be full, and it was barely half-full when I got there and maybe 2/3 full at showtime. Well, y'all missed out.

King Wilkie opened up the show. These guys burst out on the scene five or six years ago. From Charlottesville, Virginia (but now from New York apparently), they were one of a set of bands that I called the "new traditionalists" in bluegrass -- they played hard-driving bluegrass music. Named after Bill Monroe's horse, these guys could tear it up: Scruggs-style banjo, ripping fiddle leads, sweet harmonies. They had it.

Then they released an album called Low Country Suite last summer. Uh-oh. You know how I feel about bluegrass bands doing "suites." And yeah, sorry, I'm afraid that I didn't think the disc lived up to the band's potential. At a minimum, it was not what I expected out of these guys. At a maximum, it was just an OK album. So I didn't know what to expect of their set last night.

Apparently, I should also have been questioning who was in the band. This was not the tight bluegrass unit that I had seen perform at the Sheriff Sessions a few years ago nor the band that performed on their first Rebel CD Broke nor even the ensemble on the Low Country Suite disc. There was a bassist, a mandolinist, a guitarist and Dennis Lichtman on fiddle. (Dennis Lichtman has been up on the Moonshine Show with Astrograss, and I had no idea that he was playing with King Wilkie these days.) Note that there was no banjo.

The vibe was a kind of old-time blues and hokum sound -- a sound that has become increasingly popular of late with groups like The Wiyos and the Second Fiddles around New York. The second song of their set was the old classic "Sal's Got a Meatskin." The band performed songs from Low Country Suite: "Angeline" and "Ms. Peabody" stand out in my memory. The harmonies were pretty nice, and Dennis Lichtman did some nice switching from fiddle to mandolin to clarinet.

Ultimately, however, the drive of the old King Wilkie band wasn't there, and the crowd's applause was polite but short after each song. As I've noted recently (here and here), B.B. King's tends to eat up bands that are not sufficiently high energy or a sufficiently large presence. So maybe that is what happened to these guys. Or maybe they are still trying to figure out what their vision for the band is. At any rate, the set was fine, but the band failed to really impress the way that the King Wilkie unit was doing when they first started touring nationally.

The advertising for the show had said "Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band" with no indication of who that included. So I was pretty damn stoked when Jody Stecher walked out behind Pete Rowan carrying a mandolin. I've never seen Jody live, although I greatly respect him as a musician, love his song "Going Up on the Mountain" and often talk about his role in New York's bluegrass scene in the early 1960s (when he was listening to WKCR's bluegrass show -- Bluegrass Special, hosted by Pete Wernick -- from out in Brooklyn). So this was going to be a treat! And he did not at all disappoint: throughout the night, his instrumental work was hot, and his singing was at top level, better than it sounds on some of his recordings, I daresay.

The other members of the band were Keith Little on banjo and the mighty Mike Bub on bass. Man, the folks at B.B. King's missed out -- if they had said that the band was going to include these guys, I bet that the house would have been a little fuller. Pete Rowan with Jody Stecher, Keith Little and Mike Bub. That's bluegrass!

And indeed it was bluegrass. They opened up with "Roll On, Buddy" and smacked us with two other songs in a row before taking a break. Then we got a solid Pete Rowan set: "Walls of Time" (with the requisite story about the Bluegrass Breakdown, Bill Monroe's bus, living up to its name, etc.), "Land of the Navajo" and "Panama Red" all right in a row! Other highlights from the set were "Wisdom Girl" and "Blue, Dharma Blues." Keith Little sang a solid version of "Little Maggie," and Jody Stecher sang lead on the Carter Family's Western song "Away Out on the Old Saint Sabbath." Rowan wrapped the set up with the reggae-inflected "Fetch Wood, Carry Water" and then shortest version of "Midnight Moonlight" that I've ever heard.

Obviously, we called the band back for an encore. They brought some firepower up on stage with them: David Bromberg had been sitting in the audience all night, and so he came up on stage with mandolinist Bobby Tangrea and some hotshot young fiddler who just blew the roof off the place. This ensemble sang the Memphis Jug Band's "Stealin', Stealin'" with David Bromberg singing some of the verses and taking a solo and then "Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms" with hot mandolin licks from Jody Stecher and Bobby Tangrea -- playing separately and together. And this kid on the fiddle -- I wish I knew his name and will try and find out in an hour when I go to see the David Bromberg show -- he was laying down these great solos, full of energy and point perfect. He was truly amazing.

So on the list of things that I dislike is the pro-forma encore (where the band just comes out to play an encore because bands are supposed to play an encore, regardless of the level of crowd enthusiasm). On the list of things that I love is the real encore. Since we had had the pro-forma encore, it was time to get a real encore.

We were clapping loudly. I was screaming, "More! More!" at the top of my lungs (and the table of guys who had gone through four buckets of Coronas were doing the same). But nonetheless, the sound man brought up the house music and the house lights -- the death knell of real encore requests! The guy named Dan sitting at my table said, "Good try, Matt." But oh no, my friends, we persevered. We did not stop the clapping or the yelling. And it worked! Out came the band!

And the second encore was worth all the effort and more. He opened with a subdued song called "Skyscraper," which sounds like it could be either a Woody Guthrie kids song or else a September 11th memorial: "Skyscraper, skyscraper, / There's a hole in your sky. / Skyscraper, skyscraper, / Let me rest in your shadow, / Rest in your shadow before I die." (The song was written before September 11th, according to this interview.) And then they launched into "Wild Horses," which is such a great song and which they did so perfectly. And then -- bam! -- they closed the set with the brilliant political rant "Choppin' Down the Trees for Jesus" with David Bromberg taking these super bluesy solos -- his touch is insanely gentle: he pushes the strings exactly the right way, and it is truly amazing to watch. And then Bromberg and Stecher started trading fours on guitar and mandolin. It was brilliant -- an amazing conclusion to an amazing set of three songs.

UPDATE: Actually, I have seen Jody Stecher perform before. I saw him maybe five or six years ago at the Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival performing with his group Perfect Stangers.

UPDATE 2: The kid on fiddle was Nate Grower. Last night (Wednesday), he played with the Angel Band (which includes David Bromberg -- see here) but did not (sadly) play with the David Bromberg Quartet, where Jeff Wisor held forth. Although he took one really sweet solo and got a couple of other looks, he did not get to show off his stuff last night the same way that he did during the Rowan encores. But keep your eyes and ears open for this guy!

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