in performance: the earls of leicester/early james and the latest

The Earls of Leicester, from left: Johnny Warren, Jeff White, Shawn Camp, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas and Barry Bales.

During the closing moments of the Earls of Leicester’s sublime bluegrass summit last night the Opera House, banjoist Charlie Cushman stepped to the front microphone to offer a stunning bit of trivia. He stated it was 49 years ago to the evening that bluegrass forefathers Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, whose music largely forms the repertoire for the Earls (hence the band name), ended their pioneering musical alliance.

But the six member ensemble, under the direction of dobro colossus and one-time Lexingtonian Jerry Douglas, has made a mission out of rekindling audience interest in Flatt & Scruggs music by recording and performing it with a deftness both artful and playful. Last night, that legacy leapt to vibrant life with the opening strains of “Salty Dog Blues” and didn’t subside until Douglas reprised the famously mad bluegrass dash melody of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on dobro after Cushman had set the tune’s mischievous spirit in motion.

In its most immediate terms, the approach the Earls took to the Flatt & Scruggs catalog was a presentation of scholarly taste. Douglas has long been known as an instrumental thrillseeker. But the musicians surrounding him were no less versed, especially fiddler Johnny Warren, a direct link to Flatt & Scruggs’ famed Foggy Mountain Boys band (where his father, Paul Warren, also played fiddle).

Similarly, Cushman was regularly in the driver’s seat, propelling the jubilant group charge of “Will You Be Lonesome, Too?” while navigating the tricky tuning shifts of “Earl’s Breakdown” with giddy assurance. Then there was guitarist Shawn Camp, whose vocal work underscored the cheer and soulfulness of Flatt & Scruggs’ music, even during devout gospel numbers like “Get in Line Brother.”

But none of this meant the Earls treated the performance as some kind of academic exercise. While the compositional efficiency of  these tunes precluded the sort of monster soloing Douglas reaches for with his more progressive minded projects, a luxurious glimpse was nonetheless revealed when he honored the great Josh Graves, the Foggy Mountain Boys’ dobro ace (and one of Douglas’ prime influences) during the instrumental turns of “Spanish Two Step.”

But perhaps the most moving and purposeful moment came when Douglas, Camp, Warren and mandolinist Jeff White stood around a single mic to sing “Reunion in Heaven,” a Flatt & Scruggs gospel song that dates back to the early 1950s. The Earls sang the tune in December at the funeral of mandolinist Curly Seckler, the last surviving member of the Foggy Mountain Boys. Douglas and his mates did more here that merely offer a tribute. They utilized the bluegrass tradition that defines the Earls’ very existence to provide such extraordinary vintage music with a whole new sense of purpose and place.

A bonus to last night’s program was an opening set that introduced a fine acoustic guitar and upright bass duo from Birmingham, Ala. called Early James and the Latest. The modus operandi here was pure blues – ghostly, rapturous, meditative blues (as shown by the set-opening “Dig to China”) along with merrier, rag-inspired juke joint works (typified by “Taste of Sin” and “Gravy Train”). Both extremes were fleshed out with wiry and often eerie authority through the vocals of guitarist James and orchestrated by the subtle but very complete bass support of Adrian Marmolejos. Keep an eye and ear out for these guys.

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