Monday, November 5, 2007

Grasstowne and Nothin' Fancy at Berryville - Review

Frank Jurney promotes the Berryville bluegrass series at Johnson Williams Middle School in Berryville, VA. Each month during the fall, winter, and spring he brings a couple of very good national or regional bands to this quite pleasant auditorium seating 450 people. We had met Frank and his wife Cindy at Bluegrass on the Waccamaw in Conway, SC last May and determined to attend the November concert as a fitting finish for our six week autumn bluegrass sojourn. It helped that two very good bands were appearing and that one of the, Grasstowne, has three of our favorite musicians in it as well having become one of the finest bands on tour. We had spent the day driving across the lovely fall countryside of central Virginia. The Blue Ridge looked striking with fall colors standing out against the clear, blue sky. After a rest, we arrived, too early as usual, at the Johnson-Williams to find the usual skateboarders practicing their art, the volunteers setting up, and the bands doing sound checks. Frank greeted us, showed us our seats, and graciously gave us access to all parts of the stage.

Saturday’s concert featured two vastly different bands making it even more interesting than some other events. Grasstowne is a newly formed band featuring three veteran musicians, each widely respected and admired for his skill, and two very fine up and comers. Phil Leadbetter is one of only three Dobro players to have won the IBMA Dobro player of the year award, placing him, deservedly, in the company of Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes. Never flashy in appearance or manner, Phil lets his picking speak for him. Here he excels in understated but wonderful Dobro breaks and provides the fill that only a fine Dobro can. His backup is impeccable, never overwhelming but filled with good taste. It is easy for Dobro players to turn their instrument into something like the wailing sound of peddle steel electric guitars. Leadbetter never does this, but never fades away either. Just great Dobro picking.

Steve Gulley, after a stint with Doyle Lawson and nine years as a founding member of Mountain Heart, has returned to his real love for traditional bluegrass and classic country. His voice is clear and soulful, at its best on gospel songs of longing and lost love. He doesn’t have the nasal twang of high lonesome tenors and doesn’t try to achieve it. He often seems to close his eyes and go inside himself, experiencing the anguish and soul the music he chooses needs in order to express itself. His rhythm guitar playing is solid and unpretentious.

Alan Bibey, recognized last year as SPGMA mandolin player of the year, is so elegant and understated in his play that, I think, many people who hear him pick don’t recognize the true genius of his music. Ask another mandolin player about him, however, and eyes light up and true admiration is expressed. He is a mandolin player’s mandolinist. He is capable of blazing speed which is often expressed by the triplets that are his signature licks. Every note he hits is true and the sound coming from his 1923 Loar is mellow. One of these days IBMA will recognize him, and it can’t come too soon.

Jason Davis on banjo, nineteen, has just released his own solo album. It is appropriately titled “Steppin’ Out,” because with this fine offering Davis comes into his own on the banjo. Despite his age, he has seen service with Michelle Nixon and Drive as well as the Kenny and Amanda Smith Band and Blueridge. The album allows him to strut his stuff with a great variety of songs. In Saturday’s performance he was featured in each set with an instrumental as well as offering his fine banjo breaks on nearly every piece. Jason is only coming into his own now, but his apprenticeship is nearly over as he grows into the in fine band he has joined. His contributions are significant and will only continue to improve.

It’s easy to underestimate the importance of the bass in any band. Jayme Booher, in line with this band’s overall approach, plays an unobtrusive yet rock solid bass. He provides a solid beat that fills in wonderfully, helping create the overall high quality of this group.

Grasstowne takes the stage and begins to play without much fanfare. They enter and they play. Their appeal is to the ear, the mind, and the soul. They don’t clown; they don’t talk much. They play great music. Their humor is understated, but it is clear they deeply enjoy playing together. Part of their strength is the intense attention they pay to each other as their solo and ensemble work intertwines around the themes of each song. Steve’s subtle harmony to Alan’s great song “Side by Side” provides a perfect counterpoint to the plaintiveness of Alan’s piece about the lifelong love of his grandparents. Another lovely moment comes with Steve’s song about faith, “Patchin’ it Up.” Steve’s eyes close and his voice caresses the tune as Alan plays a haunting single note mandolin line behind him. Many of Grasstowne’s pleasures come from these moments of superb musicianship combined with meaningful and thought provoking lyrics. They play a number of instrumental tunes that give each member a chance to be seen at his best. This is a don’t miss band for lovers of great bluegrass music rendered with attention to the music’s roots as well as its future.

There could hardly be a greater contrast to Grasstowne’s approach and sound than Nothin’ Fancy provided in their two sets. This fine band, who’s three principle members have been together for the entire thirteen year history of the group, offers rollicking humor, front man Mike Andes’ first rate high baritone voice, solid instrumental work, and Chris Sexton’s superb fiddle playing, around which much of the byplay is centered. Andes has very pleasing voice which sounds enough like Charlie Waller’s to permit the band to play lots of Country Gentlemen covers without ever trying to sound like a tribute band or to ape them. Their work on “Two Little Boys” and “Seeing Nellie Home” is wonderful. Their voices and the songs they choose emphasize a more melodic sound that fits very well with their personalities.

Mitchell Davis on banjo uses his expressive face and a variety of postures and gestures to add notes of humor. His banjo is solid, mostly in backup, but he can split a lick on his breaks just fine. Tony Shorter, on bass, has several opportunities to show his versatility as a bass player, most notably in a second set duet with Sexton. He plays rock and blues influenced bass as well as the standard bluegrass beat so necessary to a good band. His high harmonies with Andes blend very well. Sometimes his mugging bothered me, but I think the audience generally appreciated the humor and lightness he brings to a Nothin’ Fancy performance. Gary Farris provides solid rhythm guitar, a first rate tenor voice, and a little bit of an anchor.

Each Nothin’ Fancy set concludes with a piece featuring Chris Sexton’s marvelously varied fiddling. In “Lover’s Concerto” Sexton leads off with his violin solo, which of course is much too difficult for the other members of the band, who each then show how their instrument can pick up the classic sounds first provided by Sexton. This set piece allows Chris to showcase his violin talents as well as showcasing Andes and Davis skills on mandolin and banjo. Sexton is a classically trained violinist, having graduated from Shenandoah University’s music conservatory as first chair in their orchestra. In “Pass Me By If You’re Only Passing Through” the band freezes on the word STOP as Farris looks on with surprise and then removes himself from the tableau and walks out into the audience. This never ceases to please audience. The sweetness of Sexton’s fiddle playing may seem a little out of context for bluegrass, but in Nothin’ Fancy it works perfectly. He tosses in little flourishes, for instance a brief line from Rhapsody in Blue, that complement the music and provide opportunities for humor. Sexton’s Orange Blossom Special, concluding their second set, is a marvel of inventiveness while again providing lots of opportunities for humor.

These two bands provided a sell-out audience with the best of contemporary traditional bluegrass. The evening was filled with great music, good humor, and a warm feeling. The audience was knowledgeable and appreciative, the setting comfortable, and Frank Jurney a good host. If you live in northern Virginia or nearby, take some time to drive over to Berryville for one or more of these concerts. For the rest of the 2007 - 2008 schedule, look here. For ticket and contact information, check here.

Frank Jurney - Promoter