Well into a wonderfully schooled and tasteful two hour performance last night at the Lyric Theatre, Tim O’Brien referred to the concert credo Hot Rize has long worked by.
“We have to play one prison song, murder ballad or coal mine-caving-in tune or we lose our bluegrass license.”
With that, the champion band made good on their word and launched into Ninety Nine Years, a tune of incarceration and remorse set to an assured ensemble tempo, a potent vocal wail and instrumental passages, especially by O’Brien on mandolin and banjo great Pete Wernick, full of rhythmic depth and driving lyrical grace. It was enough to make you forget just how unrepentantly bleak the song was.
That, of course, is one of the great charms of bluegrass music, not to mention a component that sits at the balance of tradition and innovation that has long fueled Hot Rize.
Disbanded since 1990 save for sporadic reunion shows, Hot Rize hasn’t visited Lexington since a Festival of the Bluegrass date in the late ‘80s (although O’Brien, Wernick and guitarist Bryan Sutton have all played here several times on their own). But all it took last night was the show-opening Blue Night, the first song from the band’s first album in 1979, to re-establish ties. The song was a crash course that covered the quartet’s many performance virtues – namely, sterling group harmonies (in this case, by O’Brien, Wernick and electric bassist Nick Forster), string soloing of impassioned but unassuming dignity and the kind of understated authority that only comes from bands that have been around the block a few times.
In a way, Hot Rize is a cultural anomaly, having taken inspiration from its Colorado roots despite the fact none of its four members are natives of the area. But the love of the band’s adopted homeland informs many of its finer songs, especially Western Skies, one of seven tunes performed from When I’m Free, Hot Rize’s first studio recording in 24 years.
While the band can pick with the speed and ferocity of newer generation bluegrass troupes, some of the evening’s most absorbing music came from songs that were more relaxed in tempo and bittersweet in theme, like the title tune to 1987’s Untold Stories and O’Brien’s new Blue is Fallin’.
The mood lightened considerably for a mid-show set by Hot Rize’s country and swing alter ego incarnation as Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, which blended austere country classics such as Always Late With Your Kisses with interludes of comedic corn (like the plug for the faux-sponsoring Waldo’s Discount Donuts: “You bite it, you bought it”).
But the last words, curiously, went to Sutton who gathered the quartet around a single microphone for I Am the Road. How fitting that a show with such sagely musicianship would conclude with four confident voices locked in gospel kinship.