One decades-old controversy in bluegrass has been all about that bass, to coin a phrase. Specifically, shalt thou play electric? Some fantastic musicians like Nick Forster of Hot Rize and John Cowan of New Grass Revival lent legitimacy to the electric bass despite getting booed for daring to violate the bluegrass code. I’ll confess that I am passionate about the big wooden double bass that anchors the classic bluegrass or classic jazz band. They make a sound like no other instrument. And this Wednesday at the Factory, when we reached the Nashville Jam on a dreamy all-bluegrass night, the upright bass player from all four bands (Jon Weisberger of Chris Jones and the Night Drivers, Alan Bartram of The Travelin’ McCourys, Mike Barber of The Gibson Brothers and Ethan Jodziewicz of Sierra Hull’s ensemble) assembled like an orchestral section and laid down a groove behind “I’m A Roving Gambler” that shook the stage and subjugated the subwoofers. It sounded huge and delicious. It was merely one of many thrills and smiles we enjoyed in a stellar show. But perhaps because the bass players of the world often receive the least attention, I was motivated to address this week’s Roots from the bottom up.
Chris Jones, the mellowest cat in bluegrass, took the stage first with his three companions who make up the Night Drivers, launching with a rather delicate banjo instrumental by banjo wit Ned Luberecki called “Nedscape Navigator.” “If That Was Love” analyzed a failed affair in a solidly traditional bluegrass frame, while “The Leaving of Liverpool” updated an ancient British ballad. I listened to the brisk opening track of the new Night Drivers album on the way to the Factory and then heard it again at soundcheck and then again in performance. “Laurie” is its name and it’s a cliffhanger. Dude’s appealing at her window to come out in the moonlight for heaven knows what. She never answers. But it’s all set to a terrific tune with a Celtic-inspired refrain pairing banjo with Mark Stoffel’s mandolin. To close out, the band offered a brief coda of hard-driving Flatt & Scruggs bluegrass that got everyone roused and ready for more music.
On a night of locomotive bluegrass Sierra Hull brought the alternative and progressive flavor the show needed for balance and intrigue. In a quick interview at the top of the show, she told us that her new project is a musically minimal affair built on her voice and mandolin plus a bass, with a few guests here and there. That’s how the set went. Ethan, a bass master recommended by none other than Edgar Meyer, proved incredibly polished and clever. Sierra was astonishing in the dance she’s created between her strings and voice. “Weighted Mind” was built on a daring harmonic idea that suited my dissonance-loving brain very nicely, as did her chromatic runs and twizzles on her mando. Dang she is a tasty player. A few mandola driven tunes got that lower instrument going in conversation with the bass as it was bowed and plucked with impeccable tone. The chamber music feeling of “Royal Tea” was a tour de force for me. And “What Do You Say” with walk-on banjo guy Justin Moses showed that Miss Hull can still crack the old school bluegrass whip when she wants to.
I imagined the Travelin’ McCourys were going to come with mod ideas and jammy whimsy as well, but actually they kicked off with a banjo-driven roar as if Aly Sutton had dropped a handkerchief at a street drag race. Three solid bluegrass standards flew by (including brother Rob’s banjo leading the venerable “Limehouse Blues”) before the first hint of the David Grisman-esque quirkiness, which the McCourys do so well. And in this case it was a revelation because the boys turned me on to a John Hartford song I’d never heard. “Natural To Be Gone” was one of John’s early works and it has a gorgeous balance between major and minor tonalities, with a seductive groove. Fiddler Jason Carter was superb on the lead vocal. The boys really stretched out on the set finale called “Travelin’” composed by Jon Weisberger and Alan Bartram, who sang the lead while handling the big bass. It had a muscular theme, a bold ensemble chorus and then a fun chord progression that gave wings to guitarist Cody Kilby, Ronnie McCoury’s mandolin, Rob’s banjo and Jason’s fiddle. It was entirely en fuego and produced an instant standing ovation.
Few groups put the blue in bluegrass like the Gibson Brothers. Even on a tune like set opener “Help My Brother,” which is not a blues form, the drag and slur of Clayton Campbell’s fiddle and the easy back porch singing of Eric and Leigh draw out a Jimmy Rodgers quality that holds all their music together. The dusted off historic discovery “Long Gone” was a formal blues (featuring one of several succulent solos by mandolinist of the year nominee Jesse Brock) as was the loping “Walking West To Memphis.” The guys gave our night the one blast of Bill Monroe it needed for street cred with a fiery “Big Mon.” And they closed out their set with a song I dwelled on the last time the Gibsons visited Roots, their award winning “They Called It Music.” Such a great little anthem to what we try to do – celebrate real music from real places in all its forms.
And thus arrived the Nashville Jam, and besides all four basses (in the roots music business we call that a ‘home run’) there were four mandolins, four banjos and I’m thinking four guitars as well. All got to take solo turns and again, with the assembled expertise and nimbleness of seasoned bluegrass pickers, the whole tune flowed. Thanks to the International Bluegrass Music Association for helping us draw a big crowd. Thanks to some primo bands for traveling a good ways to be with us. Despite our love for the lows of the bass, bluegrass night remains one of the high points of our year.