Ben DeBerry, the guitar-slinging dude half of The Danberrys, brought his old and loved copy of String Wizards to the show so that John McEuen, the man who made it in 1991, could sign it. Not only did Ben get that autograph backstage at this week’s MCR, he got a spontaneous invitation to join John on stage for a blues jam during his set. That’s how it goes in Roots world, where as I mentioned in my preview for this week, acolytes become teachers and pass it on, whether by way of stories from the road, instrumental tips or performance opportunities. It’s the Americana way.
There were plenty of string wizards on hand on Wednesday night, but John also has an album called Acoustic Traveller and that felt like an appropriate take on the show as well, as it featured no drums or electric instruments at all. But travelers for sure. Opening band the Forlorn Strangers have done, they said, about 18 months of touring with their fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass and mandolin. And it showed, with tight musicianship and songs that caught me on first listen. The rustic opener “Sugar Cane” took long draughts on the fiddle and dobro against a bluesy stomp. Abigail Dempsey took a striking lead vocal on the ballad “The Light.” In fact I think we may have heard five lead vocals by five different songwriters from a five-piece band here, and that’s impressive. Closer “Bottom Of The Barrel” is super-fun and breezy on the surface with a deep message that creeps in as you sway along. Hats off to this sparkling young band for getting so much so right in such a short amount of time.
Free The Honey visited us from far-away Gunnison, Colorado where the elevation (7,700 feet) is higher than the population (5,800) and where the air is right for acoustic folk experimentation. The trio (plus bass player) has found a sweet spot between old time and classical that’s rich with nuance and subtlety. Opener “Something About Fall” was like mountain chamber music with bowed bass and moving twin fiddle parts. The vocals started up with Katherine Taylor singing in a minor key about “Goin’ To New Orleans.” “No Longer Bound” was a pure a cappella number with finger snaps and shakers, showing loads of sweet soul. Even stronger was the closer “In This World” where each musician took a lead verse over spare acoustic bass, joining on the lush choruses. Lovely stuff.
The Danberrys are a reliable acoustic groove experience and they were especially tight and on top of things this week, with stunningly funky Vanessa McGowan on upright bass and lanky Kyle Tuttle on banjo. The support was just right for the voices of Ben and Dorothy, not to mention Ben’s impeccable flatpicking riffs. “Let Me Ride” was one of their smoother numbers, with a cool rhythmic catch in it. The solos and the quiet instrumental breakdown in “Working On A Building” were riveting. I generally praise Dorothy for her vocals and she was indeed moody and soulful as ever, but I think my favorite tune of the night was “Rain” with Ben singing lead. It had a really cool droning quality with a rhythmic sparkle and shake. They closed with Dorothy’s lead on their classic “Come Give It,” which this evening had a Grateful Dead vibe.
Mr. McEuen took the stage with his banjo and his long time musical companion Matt Cartsonis, who played guitar and mandolin and who sang old standards like “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” and less trad numbers like the set opener, Warren Zevon’s very country “Dirty Life And Times.” McEuen told a gut busting story about being invited to perform at the funeral of the man who voiced Mickey Mouse. Then Matt got some help on the crooning and lovely “Travelin’ Moon” as the night’s female performers came up to sing harmony vocals behind him. Ben DeBerry made his guest appearance with his guitar on “Fingerbuster.” No fingers were harmed.
I don’t know if it was planned or not, but Jim Lauderdale’s Nashville Jam segued from “I Saw The Light” to a swinging version of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” as the night came to an end. And our tireless an intrepid acoustic travelers all packed their stringed instruments up and headed out toward their next show.