in performance: peter rowan/john jorgenson bluegrass band (j2b2)

peter rowan. photo by ronald rietman

Given the thematic distances separating Peter Rowan and the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band (J2B2) on their newest recordings, one might assume the only thing their co-billed appearances earlier tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour had in common would have been an arsenal of stringed instruments. In the end, though, one inherently shared sound brought both acts together.
Any supposed distance was suggested by the songs Rowan shared from his new “My Aloha” album, a record that explores links between Hawaiian and American roots music. If his performances had adhered more to the Honolulu recording sessions with noted native artists that made up the album, then, yes, this would have been an evening of contrasts. But as Rowan performed either by himself or with members of J2B2 as accompanists, what you heard was far more in line with the bluegrass-bred Americana music Rowan has cultivated for decades.
Sure, one of the newer tunes, “My Aloha (Appalachian Mountain Home)” reached out from one shore to another in its storyline to become possibly the only song ever written to reference Mother Maybelle Carter and Queen Lili’uokalani side by side. Similarly, “My Blue Hula Girl,” aided by J2B2 guitarist Patrick Sauber, sported a high, spirited Rowan vocal that suggested the yodeling that has frequented his more Americana inclined songs through the years.

john jorgenson. photo by piper ferguson.

Jorgenson’s crew, aided by veteran West Coast songsmith (and the bandleader’s one-time co-hort in the Desert Rose Band) Herb Pedersen, covered all the bluegrass essentials, from the three part harmonies that drove “Beautiful Sound” to the brisk instrumental sparring during “Ridin’ on the L&N” (with guitarist Jorgenson playing predominantly on mandolin). But other tunes – Paul Craft’s “Midnight Flyer,” the Emmylou Harris/Guy Clark eulogy “Bang the Drum Slowly” and even Pedersen’s oft-covered, road weary weeper “Wait a Minute” steered J2B2 closer to a very natural, folk-fueled country blend.
With all the promotional focus on new albums, it was a treat to hear Rowan toss in two of his signature tunes, “Panama Red” and “Midnight Moonlight,” as full collaborations with J2B2. Rowan could have sleepwalked through both works if he chose to and still won over the crowd. But whether it was the fresh instrumental fire Jorgensen’s crew triggered or Rowan’s own ageless performance vigor, both songs reflected a sense of onstage camaraderie that no stylistic or thematic demarcation could dilute.

The John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band (J2B2) performs again on May 9 at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café, 235 W. Broadway in Frankfort (7 p.m., $25).


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