I love the album Aja by Steely Dan for so many reasons, but one passage that always tickled me was the line in the title track that goes: “Chinese music always sets me free/angular banjos sound good to me.” Not only is it fun to say “angular banjos,” maybe I was recognizing way back then that somehow it spoke to my musical philosophy. Give me tradition, but bend it in ways that might take a little bit of math to figure out. On a humid December night this week we gathered again at the Factory for a show that had a lot of that quality, including some real deal Chinese music and banjos.
The bookends of the show were more conventionally Roots, with a solid songwriter up front and a league-leading bluegrass band in the cleanup spot. I’d not heard about Jamie Kent before he showed up on this show’s poster. And as is generally the case, the booking cabal was out ahead of me, finding important young voices with something to say and a point of view. Kent sang “comfort’s got nothing on feeling alive,” in the lyrical and gentle “Still A Dream,” a song featured recently by Rolling Stone Country. Acoustic bass sideman Rhees Williams sang tight harmonies, sounding particularly great on “Rosalita,” a song that Kent told us (with dry wit) was inspired by travels. The troubadour might find timely success with the song “Look Up” which is most obviously about getting over our smartphone fixation but which widens into celebrating attention and mindfulness of all kinds. It was easy to look up at and to Mr. Kent.
Then the angular stuff started. I made a point to get a long interview in with the Jon Stickley Trio before the show, because their debut album Lost At Last has had a big impact on me and my music geek friends. There’s a ton of thought and skill here, but the music also glides and grooves in ways that anyone can relate to. The set opener was also the album opener “Point To Point,” which begins with a plinky pizzicato duo of guitar and fiddle then swells into a descending flourish and then develops a melodic theme based on guitar arpeggios. The follow-up “Blackburn Brothers” featured tricky beats and cyclical patterns inspired by minimalist classical music, or so it seemed to me. Stickely is a super-resourceful acoustic guitarist who uses the instrument in many surprising ways and whose timing is just flawless. Fiddler Lyndsay Pruett puts deep thought into her flowing solos, plus she adds little flourishes and sudden stops that elevate the music. Drummer Patrick Armitage studied for six years with Dave King, the astonishing drummer with The Bad Plus, and it shows in his phrasing and decisiveness. My favorite tune I think was “Rice Dream,” a tribute to our hero Tony Rice, which flows through many chapters and ideas including machine gun rhythm, jazz vibes and neo-classical fugues. A new generation of bluegrass-reared instrumental explorers is coming into its own, and the Stickley Trio is in the vanguard.
The magic spell of Wu Fei’s opening passages on her big wooden instrument was almost broken by an unexpected rattle and buzz. But we thankfully just hit the big pause button, sorted it out and started again. She breathed and let the room go still before stroking her guzheng and out came a sound that’s familiar to us from soundtracks or behind commercials but which few of us have ever really heard for real. In the hands of a master, the clean string timbres, the stretched pitches and the big glissandos were just heart-stopping. Fei’s solo opener was pure old-school, like 1,000 years old, a fisherman’s song. Then Abigail Washburn came on with her banjo, not the metallic sounding five-string that we see in bluegrass bands, but a round toned old-time banjo whose sound was strikingly complimentary to Fei’s guzheng. But then this duo has been a meeting of minds, hearts and sounds from the beginning of their friendship. The instrumental pieces were airy and light. Then they hit us with vocals that were simply ethereal. They wove “The Water Is Wide” into a Chinese context and let their voices join and depart in two different languages. They got the audience involved with a throwback chicken farming song (though we don’t think they invited the guy who popped out of the audience to offer the band farm fresh eggs, hashtag weird) and closed with their own worked up “Banjo Guzheng Pickin’ Girl” that showed Fei’s skills as an improviser. She can jam on that thing.
Traditional bluegrass, leavened with crafty songwriting, felt like returning home after a long journey at that point. The Band of Ruhks made the most of their leaders’ many skills and distinct personalities. Ronnie Bowman is the cool Nashville cat. Kenny Smith was tweeded up and bespectacled like the flatpick professor. They opened with rolling tempo then slowed down for a moving song about a Naval veteran directly inspired by the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, which had rolled around just a couple days before. “Good Time Mountain Man” had a barn dance lift and swing, and then a fresh take on Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway” matched all three voices in close harmony. Don Rigsby, who has one of my favorite voices in the music, stepped forward for the lead on “Bootleg John” and I noticed that on this set closer, a couple of young ladies who’d been basking in phone light for some of the show took Jamie Kent’s advice and looked up.