Friday, February 22, 2008

Laura Love "represents" with Black and Bluegrass program at Wintergrass

There was plenty of representing and testifying at Wintergrass on opening night, with three bands exploring the "Afro-American roots of bluegrass," as hometown folk diva Laura Love described the program she curated. And while there may have been a little more funk involved than in a standard night of bluegrass, the program made a convincing case for the relationship between black music forms and the old-time mountain music that developed into the genre known as bluegrass.

But if that sounds like it was an academic exercise, it wasn't. Actually, beyond describing the idea for the program, Love did relatively little talking. Mainly the music—from Love's new ensemble Harper's Ferry, the Ebony Hillbillies and Ruthie Foster—spoke for itself.

The Ebony Hillbillies were a late replacement for the scheduled Carolina Chocolate Drops, who had to cancel. While the Hillbillies were fresh and fun, the night lost some context without the Drops, who regularly talk about the history of black string band music in their performances.

Love said she approached the festival with the idea because she is accustomed to performing at events like Wintergrass, Merlefest and Telluride, where she is frequently the only person of color performing. "But I have been noticing there are more and more black musicians reclaiming this music," she said.

Reclaim it they did. The three bands offered a range of Afro-American music styles such as blues, gospel, and old time presented with acoustic string instruments (except for Love's own electric bass) that clearly were influences on and influenced by bluegrass.

Love's Harper Ferry kicked off the night with a six-piece band featuring Orville Johnson on guitar (Love said he as an "honorary Negro"), plus banjo rapper Turbo, Tanya Richardson on fiddle, Tory Trujillo on backup vocals and Clifford Ervin on the bones. Their set began with traditional material like "Cuckoo" and "Cotton-Eyed Joe" before moving on to spirituals like "Eyes on the Prize" and "We Shall Not Be Moved."

Looking and sounding like a latter-day Dave Van Ronk, Johnson impressed with his fine guitar work and high-harmony vocals, especially when he was featured on "Nobody's Fault But Mine" and Bill Monroe's classic "Working On a Building."

For an encore, banjo player Turbo led on a funky-chicken version of "Cluck Old Hen" that brought down the house.

Next up were the Ebony Hillbillies, a little known group of New York street musicians who present a more urbanized style of African string music, if that makes sense. They say that they hail from the "concrete hills of New York City." Their lead instruments are fiddle, banjo and mountain dulcimer, with bass and percussion backup.

I think it is not accurate to compare them with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who play a more authentic but also a more studied form of mainly banjo-based music. Still they have an original and welcome new sound that adds to the texture of contemporary black acoustic music.

>The closer was Ruthie Foster, who lived up to her "phenomenal" billing with a strong set of eclectic material and lots of stage personality that entertained the late night audience. Backed by a bass and drums, she performed traditionals, covers of Mississippi John Hurt and Son House, an amazing reworking of Stephen Foster's "O' Susannah," and several of her own numbers, including a delicious imitation of Sam Cooke.

Her story about blues singer Jessie May Hemphill shooting a hole in her Gibson guitar was a great introduction for Hurt's "Richland Woman Blues." Now I know that Richland is a section of Memphis where the night life used to be. Any dude will do, indeed.

Foster finished with a rousing take of Son House's "Grinnin' In Your Face," with Love joining her on stage for a howling finish to an original and provocative night of music.


robotdharma said...

Laura Love's bones player is my dad. His name is Clifton Ervin.

Dan Ruby said...

Thanks for letting us know. It is correct now. He was charming and fun.

Anonymous said...

Dan - thanks for the review of opening night - what an incrdible musical journey it must have been! Laura Love & Ruthie Foster are powerhouses of incredible talent that have to be seen live. Camp Flamengo