in performance: gangstagrass

Gangstagrass, from left: Rench, Dolio the Sleuth, R-Son, Dan Whitener and Landry McMeans. Photo by Benjamin Smith

“I love it when you guys are down with the program,” remarked Gangstagrass guitarist and chieftain Rench as cultures deliriously clashed last night at Willie’s Locally Known.

The program, in this instance, was a musical mission that has been viewed over the past decade as a mash-up of bluegrass and hip-hop. The one hour, 45 minute performance revealed, however, that summation to be slightly inaccurate.

The very handmade musical fabric supplied by Rench, Dan Whitener and Landry McMeans on acoustic guitar, banjo and dobro respectively was more reflective of pre-bluegrass country music, especially works that generously emphasized their Appalachian ancestry, than what we have come to accept as bluegrass. Tempos were rougher, darker and slower than the string music brought forth in the post-Bill Monroe age. The approach could have almost been accepted as folk were it not for the looped beats that continually grooved under the tunes, from the show opening “I Go Hard” to the closing cover of the roots-music staple “Darlin’Cory (Dig a Hole in the Meadow)”.

That set-up made it easier to emcees R-Son and Dolio the Sleuth to bring the hip hop element to the evening. While deciphering their rhymes was often difficult given the show’s muddy sound mix, what resulted were songs where the three instrumentalists established the music’s traditionally minded accents through narratives the emcees would then mirror with more contemporary slants. Even the most familiar fare, such as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” was presented with a wild duality, interspersing vintage verses sung by the instrumentalists with modern rhymes based off those words by the emcees. The formula didn’t shift dramatically for original fare, either, like “Bound to Ride,” “Keep Talking” and the new “Nowhere to Run.”

The most elaborate example of this cross-generational song swapping came when Gangstagrass let its popular “Justified’ theme song “Long Hard Times to Come” bleed into a vigorous update of “Hard Times Come Again No More,” the folk-blues affirmation penned by Stephen Foster. The two songs, bolstered by McMeans’ amplified dobro runs that mimicked electric slide guitar, the emcees’ tireless performance drive and the unwavering confidence the full band displayed in making such disparate styles sound natural and unified showed how Gangstagrass was getting with its own program just as readily as its audience was.



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