It became evident as the second Best of Bluegrass festival got underway Monday night at Natasha’s Bistro that BoB likes to think big. Showing little interest or need in a build-up, the event returned full blown with a remarkable double bill featuring two of bluegrass music’s keenest traditionally inspired acts: Lonesome River Band and Town Mountain.
Experiencing Lonesome River Band in such close quarters was a serious thrill. For much of its history, especially in recent years with banjo ace Sammy Shelor in charge, the quintet has excelled in the kind of subtlety that can often get lost in an outdoor festival setting. Monday night, with a rambunctious bar crowd serving as its only deterrent, LBR offered an up-close look and listen to its efficiency as a performance unit.
Solos, even those by Shelor, were concise, preferring compositional intuition over instrumental flash. As such, a tune like Pretty Little Girl relished mostly in its rhythmic drive – specifically, the percussive might of mandolinist Randy Jones.
Vocal leads and harmonies, most of which were divided between Jones and guitarist Brandon Rickman, were equally unfussy, as shown by way the singing rolled gently astride brittle, plaintive banjo colors from Shelor during Sorry County Blues and the newly recorded Shelly’s Winter Love.
Of course, there were exceptions to all that. An extended jam that revealed shades of jazz and blues served as a lengthy, loose and fascinating intro to Hobo’s Blues. The resulting music was established through round robin solos from each member. Such a communicative groove was one instance where the music of Lonesome River Band sounded anything but lonesome.
Town Mountain was, in comparison, the more raw and roots conscious of the two bands. Its opening set cared little for slick song structures in favor of a more pre-bluegrass deconstruction of country music. The bulk of its repertoire was original, although that hardly detracted from the traditional themes.
Lyrically, songs like Whiskey With Tears offered clever word play (“whiskey with tears when I’m on the rocks”). But before you sensed just how deep and dark the emotional hole guitarist Robert Greer was singing about became, the band locked into a groove loaded with honky tonk merriment.
Ditto for Up the Ladder, which balanced a Chuck Berry riff from mandolinist Phil Barker and vocal cheer from Greer that sounded like White Lightnin’-era George Jones.
There were all kinds of other delights, too, including Barker’s (very) high lonesome vocal turns during Lawdog, fiddler Bobby Britt’s lyrical sweeps throughout the instrumental Four Miles and the full band’s lovingly country makeover of Son Volt’s Windfall.
View all of this as a whole and you had an evening that was a festival unto itself. Lucky for us, BoB was just getting started.
(View Rich Copley’s LexGo photo gallery of Monday night’s performance here.)