Walking The Strings

I once got to interview the late great Jerry Reed and he explained to me that at an early age he developed “an unreeeeeasonable love for the guitar.” I think that’s the case with the many amazing players who graced our stage last night. I knew I was going to love the show; I didn’t dream it would be such a hit. We sold out, without the benefit of a Vince Gill or a Keith Urban to pack the house. And one really nice guy said to me after the show it was the best one he’d seen out of like 25 he’d been to. If you’re a guitar freak, it was not an unreasonable statement.

David Grier, one of the most unique individuals and instrumentalists I’ve ever known, opened our affair, flatpicking with a subtle rhythm section of Missy Raines on bass and Robert Crawford on drums. Grier’s style is all his own, with aggressive improvisation on tried-and-true chord changes. He slurs and slides and rolls, getting sounds and textures out of a bluegrass guitar that weren’t really imaginable before him. He set up his wild take on “Red Haired Boy” with a hilariously told story (which got applause on its own). He offered two of his own tunes. And he wrapped with a super-speedy “Black Mountain Rag” that satisfied everyone’s love of fast, fast picking.

As I mentioned in a previous post, this whole Guitar Night idea got going when I got excited about young Ben Hall and found a date for him on a show that hadn’t been booked at all. The idea of somebody so new and confident embracing the sound and spirit of Chet Atkins and Merle Travis, it seemed important to show all that Nashville guitar had become since. And man, Ben Hall held down his spot so well, with intricate fingerpicking that smoked (“Walking The Strings”) and slithered (“Windy and Warm”) At the risk of sounding music geeky, he gets so much out of his tunes with unexpected chord voicings and amazing counter-point. You could study this kid’s playing a long time and still hear new stuff. He sang beautifully and with wisdom on “I Am A Pilgrim” and he left everyone dazzled with the aptly named “Blue Smoke.”

Viktor Krauss leads a quartet that gives me chills every time, and perhaps the most striking thing about the set was how well it flowed, growing in intensity across four ethereal tunes. “Far From Enough,” the title of his first album on Nonesuch Records was molten and seductive, the perfect intro to the band, in which Viktor’s unmistakable bass tone, thrumming in perfect riffs, makes a bed for the melodic guitars of Todd Lombardo (acoustic) and Steve Walsh (electric). “For A Good Time” is a power rocker with thick guitar riffs that could almost be an AC/DC tune. They ended with the quirkiest tune, the angular “Here To Be Me.” Even its odd melody worked for this music-loving crowd.

It wasn’t hard to anticipate the vibe of Bryan Sutton’s bluegrass oriented set, but it was a surprise to hear him sing so much and so well. It’s not something I’d seen him do before, but his matched vocals with mandolinist Dave Harvey on “That’s Where I Belong” and “Streamline Cannonball” came off smooth and easy. The playing was smooth and hard. Sutton skates all over the place without every losing control. He zoomed along through the cool hooks of “Hangman’s Reel,” and on “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz” he slowed it down and drew real feeling out of the guitar. Timing, tone and touch – he’s got it all.

When we invited Guthrie Trapp to bring a “friends” band along, we had no idea he’d pull one more epic guitarist into our night. But he’s partnered with Nashville veteran Tom Britt, who matched Trapp’s wiry Telecaster picking with amazing icy slide work. They played a set of tunes each of them had written, which only added to the enjoyment. Guthrie’s “Patricia” snakes through an amazing flowing figure before allowing for lyrical jamming. “Mambo Cheeks” is deep Latin fusion, and last night it was really highlighted by the bass playing of Jerry Navarro. He’s new to me, but what a wonder of passion and joy and precision he is. Along with Pete Abbott’s drums and Dann Sherrill on percussion, this was a huge rhythmic attack that I can’t wait to see again.

Speaking of bass players, it turned out that we had a kind of legendary gathering of players in the house last night, between Missy Raines, Viktor, Dennis Crouch (from Sutton’s band) and West Coast bluegrass/newgrass legend Todd Phillips. We made sure our photographer pal Tony Scarlatti got a group portrait, which we should see pretty soon here. And as for why Todd Phillips was even there, well it turned out we had a bonus set. A filmmaker was working with Alison Brown on a bluegrass film, and plans were made to set up for a four-song set after the show had closed out. About 100 folks stuck around for a stunning ad-hoc band featuring Phillips on bass, Andy Hall on dobro, Sierra Hull on mandolin, Matt Wingate on guitar and Brittany Haas on fiddle. That’s like, uh, wow. And they played BLUEGRASS – the hardest-cutting, oldest school stuff I’ve heard many of these wonderful musicians play ever. We love the modern, but we can’t forget the chilling power of that old sound. So it was all amazing fun, and yes I love the guitar more than ever, unreasonably so.

Craig H.

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