Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hot Rize at The National Heritage Museum, Lexington, MA

Wherever Hot Rize appears, happiness seems to follow.  This storied band spreads joy wherever they appear.  In the midst of a harrowing eleven day tour in which they are making nine public appearances, presenting a workshop, and doing a live radio program, Hot Rize hit the stage at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, MA to a huge ovation and more than two hours later left the stage after a double encore with the crowd begging for more.  Hot Rize was formed in 1978 and toured full time until 1990, when the members decided to disband in order to follow other interests.  After some initial changes in personnel and instrumentation Hot Rize established itself as an important force in bluegrass with Pete Wernick on banjo, Tim O'Brien on mandolin and fiddle, Charles Sawtelle on guitar, and Nick Forster on bass.  The band held reunion concerts occasionally through the 1990's until Sawtelle's sad and untimely death from complications surrounding treatment of his leukemia in 1999.  The band had played together with the same lineup for twenty-one years.  In 2002 Bryan Sutton, a storied flat picker (five time winner of the IBMA guitar player of the year award) and session player joined the band on guitar.  At present there is some talk of a new Hot Rize CD and the current tour is thrilling audiences and the talk of the Internet forums.  Their performance is worth all the excitement.

Hot Rize at Berklee College of Music
Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, Tim O'Brien, Bryan Sutton

The band has been calling this tour the Berkley to Berklee tour, because the tour began on the west coast in Berkley, California at The Freight and after several stops in Oregon and Washington wended its way east through Boulder, Colorado to the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston, the easternmost venue on the tour.  On Wednesday afternoon the band was conveyed to a small performance room where an eager group of Berklee  students was assembled to hear them play, sing, and discuss their music. Matt Glaser, Chairman of Berklee's string department, was the host for this event.  During the very informal event members of the band spoke about their own role, the way in which they wrote and worked up songs, and the distinguishing characteristics of their particular traditional-progressive sound. 

Pete Wernick - Dr. Banjo

 Nick Forster - Band Emcee and Bass
Matt Glaser - Berklee College of Music

 Bryan Sutton

Tim O'Brien

Hot Rize

The Trio - Wernick, Forster, O'Brien

In their discussion of bandsmanship, all members repeatedly emphasized the importance of careful listening to each other, paying attention to the needs of the song, and responding with the approriate fill or lick to make each moment work.  One interesting example Nick Forster mentioned was that while he sings tenor in the trio, his voice is not a high as Tim's.  In trio singing, therefore, Tim O'Brien takes the high tenor part while Forster fills in on the lead line.  Only through careful listening and watching will an audience member pick up this switch of roles. There was also some interesting discussion of the changes brought about by placing guitar virtuoso in the spot once held by the still mourned Charles Sawtelle, an important innovator in flat picking himself.  Bryan Sutton emphasized that he is not Charles, and that he tries to honor Sawtelle's playing in his contributions to the band without seeking to imitate him or emulate his style.  The entire workshop was a huge success; those attending came away with increased understanding of how an acoustic string band works and what great bluegrass music sounds like.
Tim O'Brien

Hot Rize Playing "Radio Boogie" at Berklee

Hot Rize at The National Heritage Museum
Lexington, MA
Presented by The Boston Bluegrass Union

The eagerly awaited Hot Rize concert was announced as Sold Out several weeks before the event, and pleas for tickets filled the BBU mailing list and other forums.  A large crowd nearly filled the National Heritage Museum auditorium, although there were, in the end, a couple of dozen empty seats.  Nevertheless, the audience was loudly appreciative and knowledgeable as they erupted into cheers when the band took the stage and applauded on the first chord or two of many of the songs so familiar to them after the years of touring and recording in the Hot Rize past and future.  

Stan Zdonik - President
Boston Bluegrass Union and IBMA

Hot Rize - The Members

Each member of Hot Rize has established himself as a performer of undisputed quality in his own right.  It's worth taking a few minutes to consider them as individual's part of whose creative vitality has come together to create this memorable and ground-breaking ensemble.

Pete Wernick 

Known as Dr. Banjo throughout the bluegrass world, Pete Wernick's story is too long to tell.  Nevertheless, he was a founding member and first president of the International Bluegrass Music Association.  His banjo camps, jam camps, and band camps have established a record of excellence that set a standard.  Recently he was presented with the Distinguished Achievement Award at the Special Awards Luncheon during the IBMA World of Bluegrass annual convention in Nashville.  Not content to rest on his laurels, he is in the midst of establishing a network of teachers to spread his approach to jamming across the country.  The first class of this effort has already been held and several more are in the offing.  For more information about this particular effort, check here.  

Bryan Sutton

Bryan Sutton emerged as a first rate guitarist when he joined Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder in 1995 when it was still primarily a country band, staying with Skaggs as he morphed back into bluegrass. During the first decade of this century, he was named IBMA Guitar Player of the Year five times.  In 1999 he left Kentucky Thunder to devote more time to working as a session musician, where he is among the most respected players in Nashville.  His distinctive guitar style represents his own synthesis, unlike the many Tony Rice clones playing today or Charles Sawtelle, who's spot he now occupies with Hot Rize.

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien's career is too rich and varied to be cataloged in this piece.  An extensive biographical sketch can be found here.  As a co-founder of Hot Rize, he has established himself as an important link between the early first and second generation bands and the more contemporary ones making waves today.  He has contributed songs across a wide range of genres and has gained recognition in folk, country, and celtic music as well as bluegrass.  He is one of the most versatile performers anywhere.  He's the only person I ever saw hold an audience at Merlefest for a solo performance on the main stage in the rain.  His magnetism is that great.  

Nick Forster

Nick Forster, Born in Lebanon while his father was serving there in the State Department, takes the emcee role in Hot Rize as well as providing the beat and a good deal of intricate fill on the bass.  When Hot Rize disbanded, Nick took developed a radio program called etown which now appears on over 300 public and commercial radio stations.  It's format is a combination of live and recorded music, conversations, and musical information that has proven high popular. 

Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers

Red Knuckles is a western swing band that often travels in the back of the bus with Hot Rize.  They perform during times when Hot Rize leaves the stage in order to take a break.  

Red Knuckles

Waldo Otto
Wendell Mercantile


Just Like You by Peter Wernick


All told, the Hot Rize concert proved to be one of the most satisfactory bluegrass concert experiences we've ever had.  Don't miss a chance to see this still fresh and ground-breaking band.