An old friend who happens to be a music freak and who likes to set up his business travel around good live show opportunities did just that yesterday and made a surprise appearance at the Barn last night. He said he’d been enjoying the MCR podcasts since they went up on iTunes a few weeks ago. And given that this is a guy who recently attended one of Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles in Woodstock, NY, getting a thumbs up from him on Music City Roots made a nice night even nicer.
It was a return to the bluegrass well with three classic ‘grass acts and one bluegrass influenced band in our Vietti slot, whom I dug, even if they did make use of drums, or Satan’s Skins as they are known to the bluegrass police. Anyhow, it could not have been more exciting to have Jesse McReynolds and J.D. Crowe on one show. These gentlemen may not quite be “first generation” players like Bill Monroe, but they were the kids who had their world flipped over by the Blue Grass Boys and Flatt & Scruggs and Reno & Smiley and who immediately picked up instruments and tried to imprint themselves on those seminal sounds.
McReynolds has done a wonderful thing by recording an album of Grateful Dead songs. He was charming telling the story of how that came to pass, partly via his wife who he says is a die-hard Deadhead. Something about his voice and progressive angular mandolin playing just suits the Hunter/Garcia catalog. McReynolds and his band kicked off the night with the traditional drive of Midnight Train, but then they tickled my Jerry bone with “Black Muddy River,” “Ripple” and “Deep Elem Blues.” All had such easy timing and lyrical phrasing in the vocals, supported by his granddaughter Amanda Lynn. He’s treated these like the good songs they are, rather than a cute indulgence, and for sure Jesse’s album and performance last night will be among my favorites of the year.
Up next in the short set was Folk Soul Revival from the Tri-Cities area, and they just put all kinds of good vibes in the air. You could tell how excited they were to be playing for an appreciative audience and on the live radio. And their all acoustic front line plus drums approach sounded great. I especially like a tune I think called “Chinatown” that sounded like an outtake from one of Steve Earle’s roots projects. These guys are quite new so we’ll watch for more from them.
Donna Ulisse took the stage with her Poor Mountain Boys band and built on the evening’s charming/delighting vibe. This is a gal whose material stays tightly and traditionally country, but she seem to be able to find a way to give each song its own unique little twist. “Wildest Dreams,” her opening song has a soaring chorus. “I Lied” has a sneaky melody that explodes into a vocal harmony section that raises goosebumps. She covered ground from haunting mountain balladry to rousing gospel, and it was a joyful noise for sure.
I watched the J.D. Crowe set with my buddy and completely forgot to take notes on the song list, but let’s just say that if the question is, as the t-shirts put it, Got Banjo?, then the answer was emphatically Yes. Crowe doesn’t flitter all over the place and send sparks a flying. He slays with timing and tone, the twin pillars of tasteful picking. The band has that mature locked in quality that comes from years and years of honing the craft. Crowe has famously drawn selectively on rock and folk influences, but his music is pluperfect bluegrass if you asked me, which you didn’t. But there you go.
The gang capped off the night with a rousing take on “Cryin’ Holy Unto My Lord,” with some awesome solos from Jesse and J.D. and the Poor Mountain Boys. More tone. More timing. Tremendous.