Saturday, February 23, 2008

Oh, what a (Friday) night at Wintergrass

Three of the most highly regarded progressive acoustic bands, each with a new record in the can but not yet released, previewed their new material in a glorious evening of music Friday night on the Wintergrass main stage. The show featuring Crooked Still, The Infamous Stringdusters, and Punch Brothers with Chris Thile burnished this festival's growing reputation as a prime venue for innovative acoustic string music.

To be sure, Wintergrass presents straight-ahead bluegrass as well. The early evening program at the Pavilion Stage presented mainstream stars Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper and Bobby Osborne & The Rocky Top X-press. Cleveland's band is full of hot pickers, not least the fiddling front man who has notched numerous IBMA honors, but the set seems packaged as an act, lacking the kind of spontaneity we would shortly be hearing. At 79, Osborne is a delight as a surviving bluegrass pioneer, but you don't see him expecting anything new.

Crooked Still
With the traditional bases covered, Wintergrass then brought out the musical firepower. First up was Crooked Still, reconfigured with Tristan Clarridge on cello in place of wild man Rushad Eggleston and with semi-regular special guest Casey Driessen on fiddle. Another new member, Brittany Haas, was not on hand, however.

As did each of the three bands, Crooked Still featured its new material while mixing in favorites from previous albums. As usual, the focal point in the band is vocalist Aoife O'Donovon, whose whispery voice and collaborative band leadership sets the tone for the proceedings. Probably the big question was how Clarridge would fit as Eggleston's replacement. The answer is that he delivers all of Rushad's trademark chops and that he adds an improvisational lyricism as an added dimension.

Of course, he could never match Rushad's personality and wisely doesn't try, letting his bow work speak for itself. Clarridge is a string-band prodigy, having won numerous fiddle championships beginning at a very young age. Now 23, he began playing cello a few years ago. In an interview with Festival Preview last month, he described himself as a follower of Eggleston's cello playing style.

The interplay of low sounds coming from Clarridge's cello and Corey DiMarco's bass, the treble coming from Driessen's artistic fiddling, and the staccato of Greg Liszt's banjo produce a unique sound, especially layered over with O'Donovan's vocals. Rushad is a unique talent, but Crooked Still will now play more as a unit without his outsized presence.

O'Donovan returned the favor from Tuesday night and had Sarah Jarosz join in on a couple of songs, including a new original by O'Donovan, "Low Down and Dirty." That was one of the highlights of the set that we can expect to see on the new album in a few months. A couple of others that stood out were "Captain Captain," "Tell Her to Come Back Home," and Robert Johnson's "Last Fair Deal Gone Down." Other new material continued the band's formula of reworking traditional folk material.

The Infamous Stringdusters
Next up was The Infamous Stringdusters, fresh off one of the hottest album debuts in recent memory. Last fall, the band picked up IBMA awards for album of the year and new band of the year. The sextet played Wintergrass a year ago, and last night marked their triumphant return.

The 'Dusters also had a recent band personnel change, with Andy Falco replacing hot guitar picker Chris Eldridge (who joined Punch Brothers, coming up next on stage). Falco delivers all the licks and superfast runs Eldridge supplied, ably holding down the guitar seat in an amazing instrumental ensemble that also includes Chris Pandolfi on banjo, Jeremy Garrett on fiddle, Jesse Cobb on mandolin, Andy Hall on dobro, and Tavis Book on bass.

Book, Garrett and Hall trade off on lead vocals, adding to the ensemble direction of the band. More than half of the set was new material, with a few of the hits from Fork in the Road interspersed. The new stuff is all over the map, but the common denominator is the improvisational opportunities each song provides.

Several times, the jams veered into jazzy territory and occasionally into rock and roll. Each musician is impressive, but it seems to be Pandolfi who most often leads the band into unexpected forays. They closed with an jazz instrumental encore, "Moon Man" by Pandolfi, that was a delight. Expect that along with a host of great new vocal numbers on their new album due in June.

Punch Brothers
At this point, I am thinking, how can Chris Thile's new act top those two wonderful sets? The answer is by venturing even further out into musical abstraction. The centerpiece of the performance would be the third and fourth movements of Thile's ambitious newgrass suite, "The Blind Leading the Blind," which is also the core of Punch Brothers' new album due out next week. (The band played the first two movements in an earlier set at the Church Stage that I missed.)

Punch Brothers is the new name for Thile's band, previously known as How to Grow a Band and including Eldridge on guitar, Noam Pikelny on banjo, Gabe Witcher on fiddle, and Greg Garrison on bass, in addition to Thile's incomparable mandolin. If the Stringdusters start in bluegrass and veer into jazz, Punch Brothers starts in jazz and veers into avant-garde classical. This was my first hearing of the suite, which is a piece that will require multiple listenings to fully understand.

The suite is Thile's tour-de-force individual composition, but the rest of the material in the set and on the album is collaboratively written by all the band members, some as abstract as the suite but some grounded in familiar melodies and styles. The night closed with an encore of "Ophelia," the great song by The Band, with Gabe Witcher singing the part of Levon Helm. Wonderful.

As the happy audience filed out out of the Pavilion, many to head for the late-night dance venue or to post-midnight jams in the hotel, I had a sudden realization that this may have been the most exciting evening of music I have ever witnessed on a festival program. Oh, what a night!


tdub said...

Great writeup, Dan... A fantastic Wintergrass this year and as an old codger, I am happy to report probably more than 30% of the crowd being under the age of 30, not something we saw at Wintergrass until the past year or so. The bluegrass thread is spinning outward, the tradition continues, the music lives on. Sad to say, I found many of the "older" acts (that is to say, around my age) not really presenting anything challenging or compelling. I fully expected to love Dale Ann Bradley, but found her "southern country girl" stage patter to be contrived and forced and the band never really stepped out with any licks that were very compelling.

The same could not be said for the Infamous Stringdusters. It is hard to imagine, but in the year since I saw them last, they have expanded their already brilliant horizons and continue to amaze. EVERY member is a top shelf player with great vocal skills, the whole package. And Mr Falco is a monster on the guitar.

While Crooked Still lacked a little of the "stizzle and steak" that Rashad brought, their set was very, very entertaining and energetic. They are still a singularly unique band with a bright future.

Chris Thile did not do as much for me. The musicianship is beyond skilled, but I continue to find the long, meandering arrangements to be ulitmately tedious to my ears Picture in your mind a film soundtrack of a bunny hopping through the woods for 12 minutes. Sorry, it's just me, the musical brilliance didn't transcend into an enjoyable anything compelling. My head loved it, my heart wasn't so sure.

Another huge highlight for me was the Duhks. They played supercharged and infectiously exciting sets, especially the midnight Saturday show where they essentially tore the roof off the place with one of the best sets I have heard in the past year, any band, any genre. Wonderful finish with several members of Crooked Still on stage.

A GREAT Wintergrass, the best ever in the last 8 years for me. They do a fantastic job, such a great festival.

G85 said...

Good comments all, I have to say though, after attending all the Wintergrass festivals from the beginning, the past two have been my least favorite. I certainly lean toward the traditional in my tastes, but I also appreciate a lot of the progressive bands, unfortunately I guess, just not the ones that have been so predominate at Wintergrass the past few years. I agree regarding The Stringdusters, great band. Crooked Still was great, a lot of energy and real positive feel, I think Aiofe's vocals are much more powerful than when I first saw them a year ago. They did really good sets. Clevelands band was great, as were The Grascals. I have to agree with you on the Punch Brothers. I really enjoyed the bit of Swing that was around, and a couple of the young string bands.

Unfortunately I feel that Wintergrass is leaning too heavily toward the progressive acts and it leaves the festival lacking for me these past few years.

Speaking of contrived, Dale Ann Bradley, though not necessarily my favorite, doesn't hold a candle in the contrived category to a couple of other acts at Wintergrass this year.

I think I will be heading to Rivercity next year. I may go to Wintergrass for one day, but I think the larger portion of my budget will be going elsewhere. I like the Rivercity mix of Bluegrass and country or alt country and swing better than the Wintergrass mix that is too light on traditional Bluegrass and country/swing.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, River City is great. I only have a couple of comments on that fest. It's so darned close to the Wintergrass date and I am exhausted and holiday broke when River City rolls around! And I am always torn by River City venue. Always a GREAT lineup of acts, but what a sterile, yukky venue for a bluegrass festival.

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