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Grassy Borders, No Hedges 7.19.17

There was a festival atmosphere in Liberty Hall on Wednesday night and not just because the crowd was large and loud (though that helped). There was also that ineffable flow and unspoken dialogue among the four bands, softly conveying the spirit of roots music in all its complimentary forms. The timeless but mysteriously innovative folk/gospel flavor of Birds of Chicago gave way to the pure mountain-tinged songwriting of Jill Andrews. The bluegrass second half paired young and hungry Billy Strings with one of his heroes, the sixtysomething but unaware of it Jerry Douglas. His band came with a jazz/grass/rock fusion mode that tickled my every musical nerve ending. Keep on the grass? Good luck with that.

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JT Nero and Allison Russell took the stage with new obvious clues about the sound about to emerge. She had a clarinet after all, and you don’t see those every day. But opener “Alright Alright” revealed an appreciation of the Tin Pan Alley past and a contemporary ear as well. Allison’s a cappella lead on a song about her grandmother was passionate with a secular gospel tone. JT’s lead on the pulsing “Remember Wild Horses” was unapologetically folky. Then the closer “American Flowers” was a beautifully open hearted tribute to our pluralistic and oft divided nation in the spirit of Woody Guthrie. Electric guitar shimmers and solos (plus harmony vocals) from Mandy Fet added gorgeous, flowing touches to the music.

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It was nice to see another female electric guitarist with stunning tone take the stage in the next set as well. She was Julie Melucci, side musician to songwriter Jill Andrews, and her contributions more than doubled the beauty and spectral quality we anticipate from Jill. I loved that Andrews stopped her second song a few bars in to really lock in her guitar tuning. Brave move on live radio. But it showed commitment to her overall sound and impeccable delivery on “Sweet Troubled Man.” “Here Now” brought harder groove and edge, while “Blue Eyes” was offered as a tribute to her eight-year-old son, who, at the dedication, stood in his chair in the third row in a Superman t-shirt and put his fists in the air. Viva Mother Jill.

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Land sakes, Billy Strings is a great bandleader. Wearing literally and thoroughly rose colored glasses and bobbing and weaving in wind made by a couple of stage fans (he says it keeps his fretting hand dry), Billy exuded cool while dashing off complex acoustic guitar tunes with his crack quartet. The opening instrumental was pretty straight bluegrass and original song “While I’m Waiting Here” was about a lonesome cry from prison. The band’s drum tight “Little Maggie” was a tour de force set closer with stylistic variety and killer solos all around. Billy Strings isn’t just a guy. It’s a stellar band with a young visionary up front.

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Billy Strings couldn’t have been a better table-setter for the Jerry Douglas Band, which filled the stage with two horns, our pal Christian Sedelmyer on fiddle and the astonishing Mike Seal on guitar, plus a full rhythm section. They dove right into the fastest blur of a tune on the new What If album, the revived Douglas original “Cave Bop” with its speedy Charlie Parker type melody doubled on dobro and guitar. Jerry sang and very well on the Tom Waits song “2:19” and then later on “Hey, Joe.” It wasn’t that long ago that JD was bashful about his voice, but he’s added that to his repertoire in mid career. “What If” itself had a cyclical arpeggio quality like a Philip Glass piece. “Freemantle,” a long-ago Jerry/Bela Fleck co-composition was tricky and slippery, with simply unbelievable playing from the string players and horn players as they traded solos around. This is as high level as it gets and I’m still sad that it’s over.

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