in performance: the goat rodeo sessions

the goat rodeo sessions

the goat rodeo sessions: chris thile, aoife o’donovan, yo-yo ma, edgar meyer and stuart duncan. photo by jeremy cowart.

In referencing how bandmates Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile were navigating through classical adaptations, Appalachian-inspired Americana and improvisational mischief without the aid of written music while he was anchored behind layer upon layer of scores, the master cellist Yo-Yo Ma dubbed himself an “old goat.”

But in the case of the genre-bending performance Ma gave last night with Meyer, Thile and veteran Nashville fiddler Stuart Duncan at Cincinnati’s PNC Pavilion, being an old goat was a good thing. After all, the foursome performed under the name of The Goat Rodeo Sessions. Whether the music was in their heads or on paper in front of them, the players generally smashed string quartet convention during a fascinating two-set, two hour performance.

All four players, in varying degrees, have indulged in stylistically cross-pollinated string music long before Goat Rodeo came along. Ma and Meyer cut the famed Appalachia Waltz recording with Mark O’Connor in 1996, although with the exception of a brief two-movement blast of Bach, last night’s performance possessed far less of a chamber feel than that album. Still, there was a strong, adventuresome spirit to the program.

Melodies were regularly and generously passed around from player to player, as in the way Duncan’s sly fiddle lead made the rounds during the concert opening Quarter Chicken Dark. Over taught, tense ensemble passages, the lead was passed off to Thile on mandolin, then to Meyer on double bass before finding its way back to Duncan. Curiously, the overall tempo seemed to be controlled by Ma, who let the tune noticeably relax halfway through so that its playful barnyard ambience could bounce about.

The resulting feel of the program mirrored the group’s self-titled 2011 album, meaning a mix of bluegrass and classical instrumentation was used to flesh out Appalachian flavored material that sounded less like vintage folk or country and more like a scholarly take on jazz and jam band music. Even the Schubert-inspired Franz and the Eagle was more classically themed than constructed (or executed).

A lovely addition to the group was Americana songstress Aoife O’Donovan. A contributor to The Goat Rodeo Sessions album, she harmonized with Thile on four songs, including a quietly regal take on Bob Dylan’s Farewell Angelina (which also pulled vocal support from Duncan).

As fascinating as the band makeup was (Meyer, Duncan and Thile all did double and sometimes triple duty last night on piano, mandolin and guitar/fiddle, respectively), one of the purest, most enchanting moments came during the encore of Ar Hyd y Nos (All Through the Night) – specifically, in the very brief instances when the ensemble sound was whittled down to just O’Donovan’s plaintive singing and Ma’s gorgeously complimentary runs on cello.

That made for a nifty new trick from a resourceful old goat.

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