Friday, July 18, 2008

Three Young Bluegrass Bands Shred Some Strings in New York

On Wednesday night, three of the hottest young bluegrass bands on the scene showed up in New York for the final night of a whirlwind three-day tour: Chatham County Line, the Infamous Stringdusters and Crooked Still. (On Monday night, the line-up had played at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, and then on Tuesday night at World Cafe in Philadelphia.) Allan, Sarah and I were there, as were my friends Peter, Sharon and Hannah from the Desperation String Band. We had some good space right down front.

Chatham County Line opened up the show. I had seen these guys at the Bowery before with Allan, opening up for Tift Merritt, and also at the Rodeo Bar. And the day after Jimmy Martin had died, lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Dave Wilson had spontaneously shown up at WKCR to chat with me on the air about the band. ("Hey, Matt, it's Dave Wilson from Chatham County Line. I'm outside the door here," said the voice on the phone.)

These guys are out of North Carolina, and they play pretty straight ahead bluegrass -- almost all original songs written by Dave Wilson. They play as a pretty tight unit around a single microphone with some nice choreography and some solid harmonies. They did fall out of the pocket here and there, and mandolinist/fiddler John Teer stands maybe an instrumental inch or two taller than the other members of the band. (Although Dave Wilson gave him a big yawn during one solo -- it's not clear if this was a stage yawn or true tiredness.) Bassist Greg Readling also pounds out some powerful slaps on the bass -- I kept thinking that a guitar string had popped!

The set was good -- a solid opener to the night -- and the band was very energetic. But they saved the real magic for the end of the set. They walked off the stage and out into the middle of the crowd -- right in front of us -- and formed a circle for two songs: the first was a shouter with a chorus and then the second was an absolutely brilliant rendition of The Travelling Wilburys' "Handle with Care." It was a beautiful gesture with which to close and left a powerfully positive patina over the whole set.

The Infamous Stringdusters took the stage next. As opposed to Chatham County Line's single microphone set-up, the Stringdusters were spread across the stage in a line, although they would often turn toward each other in groups of twos and threes while playing. Each musician in that line is a virtuosic player, but better than that, they also come together as a band and lay down a good groove. Their first CD, Fork in the Road, did not impress me that much. It was good but didn't stick with me. I've only listened to their new eponymous CD once, and my impression is somewhat similar: there are good songs and good playing on it, but it's not still with me a few hours later. Live, however, these guys can make a mark.

The two clear stand-out players for me were Andy Falco on guitar and Jesse Cobb on mandolin. Andy Falco is from Long Island and has played in the New York area for a number of years, and I've heard a lot of good things about him. He is a beautifully smooth player, able both to pick a lot of notes and provide interesting rhythmic accents in that playing. (The latter is the thing that a lot of hot picking guitarists lack.) The crowd responded with true appreciation. Jesse Cobb's playing was hot on the solos, but his rhythmic mandolin chops during songs were also a work of art, as he clucked out various syncopated patterns to add a truly interesting but unintrusive accompaniment.

Chris Pandolfi's banjo was too quiet the whole night, and he also lays back a little too much. He's a good player and should both step up to the microphone with a little more aggressiveness in his posture and tell the soundman to turn up that infernal twanger of his. His solos did not leave the same mark as those from the other band members.

Two highlights were a Jesse Cobb instrumental that I never caught the name of, which bumped around between different rhythms and had more than a touch of Sam Bush in it, and then a blistering version of "Leather Britches." For an encore, they hit the stage and played some straight ahead bluegrass: Jimmy Martin's "Sunny Side of the Mountain." A perfect closer. (And a bit like Punch Brothers playing "Molly and Tenbrooks" as an encore.)

Chris Pandolfi described playing at the Bowery Ballroom as the New York equivalent of playing on the Grand Ole Opry. I'm not quite sure about that, but I'm glad that they were having a good time because we certainly all were.

The last act of the night was Crooked Still, featuring their new line-up with Tristan Clarridge on cello and Brittany Haas on fiddle. (I saw Tristan Clarridge playing with New Old Stock back in May, and I have been a very, very big fan of Brittany Haas's self-titled solo CD and her playing with the mighty old-time master Bruce Molsky.) They are touring on a new CD, Still Crooked, which features the two new members of the band.

First off, these guys should have played first or second. Sorry. The Stringdusters should have closed -- they have a fuller sound, more energy and are less of a niche band. (Yes, bands reinterpreting old-time songs to be played on a grooving cello are indeed a niche band.) So it was tough to feel the same spirit during Crooked Still's set as had prevailed during The Infamous Stringdusters' set.

Second off, Dr. Greg Liszt -- who has a Ph.D. from MIT and tours with Bruce Springsteen -- was out of his gourd. From his opening monologue, in which he invited us to all "pass along a big F-bomb to the president," to his commentary on bandmate Brittany Haas's hemline, he appears to have taken over Rushad Eggleston's role in the band for questionable and unnecessary commentary. His banjo playing was not affected, but it was really striking -- Allan and I just kept looking at each other and saying, "I thought that guy was out of the band!"

Third, regarding that guy who is no longer in the band, Tristan Clarridge's cello is not Rushad Eggleston's cello. Tristan is, in my opinion, a better melodic player -- he played beautifully. However, he did not lay down that heavy groove into which Rushad used to launch. And that made it feel like there was a little something missing. The grooving cello is the signature sonic quality of this band, and it was not as out front last night as it used to be.

Finally, some members of the Desperation String Band were a little eager to adjust the sound and yelled out "Less bass!" repeatedly. Corey DiMario took this a little personally and asked for security to remove them. Luckily, he was joking.

The set featured a number of excellent songs. "Pharaoh" is a wonderful Sydney Carter song -- he is the English poet who in 1963 set his poem "Lord of the Dance," inspired both by Jesus and Shiva to the tune "Simple Gifts" -- it's a song that gets sung every year in the Dutch Barn at the Old Songs Festival. They offered solid versions of Ola Belle Reed's "Undone in Sorrow" and Gillian Welch's "Orphan Girl." Uncle Dave Macon's "Tell Her to Come Back Home," as learned from Dirk Powell, showed up toward the end of the set with some harmony vocals from Ruth Ungar Merenda from The Mammals. "Come On In My Kitchen" and a singalong version of "Shady Grove" wrapped up Crooked Still's set.

And then -- as you might have hoped -- it happened. All three bands came out on stage for an encore. And Dave Wilson and Aoife O'Donovan led the way through Neil Young's "Helpless," an excellent choice for a closer and a great cap to a solid night of music.

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