It’s difficult to understand why bluegrass music fans living within a reasonable distance of the E. Hartford Community Cultural Center don’t show up in droves to attend the concert series promoted by Roger Moss, Director of Recreation for E. Hartford. The venue is only a short distance from I-84 or I-91, is located in a former High School where lots of parking is provided in the midst of a pleasant neighborhood, and offers unusually comfortable seating and superlative sound. There are plenty of small, inexpensive restaurants nearby to provide a pleasant dining experience for people driving in from a distance. We ate dinner at Piolyn Jr., a Peruvian restaurant where we were served two of the most delicious dinner soups, filled with large chunks of fish, shrimp, crab, and squid in a rich and tasty broth, we ever had. On a cold blustery night, with snowfall scheduled for the next day, the Community Cultural Center was warm, welcoming, filled with good music, and held a small, but very appreciative audience for the appearance of the Claire Lynch Band.
The Claire Lynch Band is one of the strongest bands playing on the bluegrass circuit today. Far removed from the hard driving bluegrass you might expect from more traditional bands, he sound and sensibility still show their deep roots in traditional bluegrass. Her song “The Day That Lester Died” commemorates the huge loss of one of the first generation greats and the debt owed them by the succeeding generations of bluegrass musicians. Meanwhile, the band’s setting for “Wabash Cannonball” provides a traditional setting for a jamming classic second to none. In this piece, Jim Hurst on guitar, Mark Schatz on bass, and Jason Thomas on fiddle each build breaks that enrich the familiar tune in unexpected and interesting plays. The success of this song is symbolized by its frequent play on Sirius/XM’s Bluegrass Junction, where it is a favorite despite the fact it last about eight minutes.
Lynch’s clear, pure voice wraps lovingly around every song it embraces. She can caress a love song or swing out on songs like “I’m Fallin’ in Love.” A new song, which will appear on her next album, “Face to Face”, is unusual for gospel songs in that it recognizes the idea of doubt and personal weakness without judging and affirms the hope for the future represented by faith and the Bible. It’s a wonderful new song. Her “Up This Hill and Down” recognizes the ups and downs of the roadway through life in a lilting and engaging tune. Lynch successfully portrays emotion in her singing and body language while never becoming so wrapped in the song that she loses connection to her band, her audience, or herself. Her voice is a flexible and vibrant instrument complemented by her joyful approach to the music.
The members of Claire Lynch’s band not only complement her on every song, but stand alone as brilliant performers in their own right. Jim Hurst has twice been selected as IBMA guitar player of the year, but his work on banjo is equally creative and innovative. His drive on traditional three finger style banjo playing stands with the very best. His finger style guitar playing sets him apart from many pickers. He used as thumb pick to create the sound many flat pickers achieve while supplementing that sound with the three other fingers of his right hand His up the neck virtuosity is as good as anyone’s. Whether it’s on straight instrumentals of the anti-blues song “Ain’t Got the Blues,” his taste and tone are beyond reproach. His guitar playing keeps him in the top rank.
Mark Schatz on bass has also been twice recognized by IBMA. Even without the other qualities he brings to the band, Schatz would be a stand-out virtuoso on the basis of his bass playing alone. His beat is impeccable, steady and reliable. He works the entire range of the instrument and draws sounds from not heard with every band. Watching Mark’s hands is often like watching two skilled dancers working together to create a total unity of purpose. Add to this his ham-boning on “Cindy, Cindy” and his clogging, and the audience receives a greater range of entertainment than can usually be expected from the bass player. During the band’s second set, Schatz slung an open back banjo around his neck for a medley of old time songs. Working with Thomas and Hurst, their rendition of “Soldier’s Joy” was one of the finest I’ve ever heard – fast, clean, and lilting. Throughout the performance, Mark Schatz communicates his sheer joy at being a member of this fine ensemble as well as the tones his instrument can add to the mix.
It would be easy to overlook the less heralded Jason Thomas on mandolin and fiddle in this band. Thomas replaced David Harvey when Harvey’s responsibilities at Gibson Instruments made it impossible for him to tour as much as the Claire Lynch Band requires. Thomas, who lives in Florida, was a standout among the musicians auditioned and, like his other band-mates, makes fine contributions to the band’s appeal. His mandolin play is melodic and extremely clear. He doesn’t rely upon excessive speed to make his musical mark, but need take second place to no one. On fiddle his bowing is clear and his tone delightful. He fits in and contributes without needing to compete for attention within the band. As the band has become increasingly comfortable with its new lineup, its work has become increasingly strong and impressive.
Upcoming events at the East Hartford Community Cultural Center include:
January 22 – The Steep Canyon Rangers
March 14 – The Infamous Stringdusters
April 16 – John Reischsman and the Jaybird
In addition to these events, the Center offers other Americana performers and a weekly schedule of free films. We attended Podunk Bluegrass Festival last summer and now this excellent concert in East Hartford. The auditorium is as good as any, anywhere. Music fans should support these events with great enthusiasm. Information about tickets can be found here.
To see more pictures from this concert, look at my Picassa Web Album. Please be kind enough to observe my copyright if you decide to post these anywhere. Please be sure to provide me with photo credits and a link to my blog. Providing this link to my albums is an experiment for me. Don't disappoint me. - Ted