World Of Bluegrass

It was an amazing coincidence. I got in my car to head back into town after a luminous night at Music City Roots and on came the interview show “Q” with Jian Ghomeshi from the CBC. I caught the very start of a lively debate on the question: Should we retire the term “world music”? Well freak my head out because I’d spent much of the day discussing the origins and merits and limits of that very thing. Our spotlight this week was on the new Bluegrass compilation album from Putumayo World Music, one of the most innovative and successful world music labels of all time. And I’d enjoyed a long interview with the company’s founder and CEO Dan Storper. Plus I put questions about world music to some of our musical guests like Alison Brown of Compass Records, who knows that “world” really well.

I’m going to tackle the parameters of the debate and the uncanny parallels to the birth and life of Americana music on my own blog, but it was fascinating and I hope you give it a listen at the link above. As Sam Bush said last night, bluegrass is a “world music” in that it’s indigenous to America and it’s traveled and reached the ears of folks worldwide as a clear voice of the American spirit. So while we often feature bluegrass on Roots, last night’s Putumayo-inspired show put it in an empowering new context.

Kicking things off was Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, a lithe and exceptional quartet from the D.C. area that’s been nominated as an Emerging Artist of the Year for 2012 by the IBMA. The longest-running members are Frank, the mandolinist and lead singer and Mike Munford, a banjo cult icon who should be better known. A FS&DK set is a matter of suspense, wondering when those two will launch off on an instrumental psycho-excursion. But before that shoe drops, there are great original songs and covers to enjoy in the meantime. They opened with a nod to The Box Tops with that cool 60s pop song “The Letter” and heck yes it works as a bluegrass song, with Mike’s minor key banjo flow laying it down. Also fine was Kate Wolf’s “Across The Great Divide,” which was the song that the band landed on the Putumayo collection. But it was in the closer “Line Drive” when the fireworks climaxed. Munford and Solivan paired off and squared off, producing a torrent of notes that got ever-more exciting. Also on display was great work from the band’s new guitar player Chris Luquette.

I owe Town Mountain an apology because I suggested in my preview blog that they’d never played our show before and that was a total brain lock. They played a year ago June on one of those shows that accidently got slammed with six acts, so it was a blur, but no excuse for me. Sorry guys. Anyway, we were very glad to have this Asheville quintet BACK at Roots, because they have soul and flow and chops, all in a rather traditional package. They’re one of the younger groups truly defining a new old-fangled bluegrass sound. “Four Miles” was a tasty instrumental led by the fine fiddle of Bobby Britt. They did that plus two other songs from their new Leave The Bottle album (coming Sept. 4) and don’t mistake that title cut for a teetotaler’s song or an AA anthem. It means, hey bartender leave the bottle WITH ME so I can self-medicate. They concluded with their only catalog tune of the night, “Diggin’ on the Mountainside,” which made the Putumayo anthology with its plaintive lyrics about the rapacious and endless hunger for exploiting coal.

The band assembled around banjoist Alison Brown and fiddler Andrea Zonn was ad hoc and stellar, with a rhythm section of Larry Atamanuik on drums and Brown’s husband Garry West on bass. Ethan Ballinger, from Missy Raines and the New Hip, was tapped to play guitar. Matt Flinner was on mandolin. All had played together before in various combos, but never this exact combo, and I love to see what kind of new sound emerges when new groups of old friends pick together. The star here was Andrea Zonn’s voice. Anyone who loves Alison Krauss, which is everyone, needs to hear this famed sidewoman sing, because not only is she talented, but her heart issues forth, and a lovely heart it is. She absolutely glowed on “New Night Dawning,” the song from the Putumayo collection and “Heads Up For The Wrecking Ball,” a Beth Nielson Chapman gem. You really need to seek both of these out on Andrea’s stellar 2003 release on Compass called Love Goes On. Of course Andrea also fiddles, and she matched up tartly with Alison’s banjo on “Sally Ann” and a medley of Appalachian and Celtic instrumentals.

And then came that man with the mando plan who leads the Sam Bush Band. I’ve always said that if there’s one artist who truly reflects my own concept of the Roots vision (as well as my personal taste and life history), it’s Sam Bush. It’s got it all: the loving balance of tradition and modernity, the constant quest to improve and grow, the ability to write and cover excellent songs and instrumental/band expertise. Oh, and grooooove. Sam proved he’s also capable of surprise by opening with a Beatles cover (“I’ve Just Seen A Face”) which had plenty of bluegrass/banjo potential and featured a speedy solo by guitarist Stephen Mougin. “Diamond Joe” and “Out On The Ocean” from his Circles Around Me album brought the deep tissue bluegrass massage, while the title track was a floating, lovely songwriter turn. They closed by shining the spotlight on Scott Vestal, who banjoed his face off on his own tune, “By Stealth.”

The jam had to be a bluegrass standard, because as they kicked off “On and On,” there were, by my count, four banjos, four mandolins, two fiddles and seven acoustic guitars on stage. Everyone got a turn and everyone made the most of it. Truly, it was a Loveless Jam that put the bow on the night, and maybe a cherry on top too. The barn was packed. Amazing musicians and artists were in the crowd; I saw the Wood Brothers mingling, and E Street Band legend Garry Tallent was hanging. So nice to see Jill Andrews, Laurie McClean, Charlie Chadwick, Guthrie Trapp and many other friends. It was a “world” of fun.

Craig H.

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