in performance: jerry douglas

Jerry Douglas.

“It’s funny to be playing here,” remarked Jerry Douglas from the roof of the Kentucky Castle last night just as the first hints of sunset appeared beyond the battlement-style walls. “I mean, I’ve been driving past this place all my life.”

The 14-time Grammy winner and long acknowledged pioneer of the resonator guitar known as the dobro, Douglas knows the Castle for the mythic property it has long been recognized as, having lived in Lexington in the mid 1970s as a member of JD Crowe and the New South. Coincidentally, he drove by it again exactly one week ago while en route to visit his parents in West Virginia. His longtime friend, John McEuen, would kickoff Concerts in the Castle series there in a matter of hours, but during Douglas’s afternoon drive-by, rainstorms had reached tempest level.
The McEuen concert prevailed, but Douglas’ show last night was the first in the series to utilize the Castle’s roof. With not a storm cloud in sight, a sold out crowd before him and a summer sun slowly setting stage right of where he playing, the initiation of the region’s grandest and most unlikely concert venue was complete.

To that end, Douglas did not disappoint. A cornerstone player in a fruitful new grass music generation during the ‘70s and ‘80s, longtime member of Alison Krauss and Union Station, leader of the scholarly Flatt & Scruggs tribute troupe The Earls of Leicester, frontman for a fusion-flavored band that bears his name and a session musician on countless recordings, the well journeyed Douglas played last night alone. Armed with a lone dobro, he dug into an astonishing array of compositions that touched upon elements of traditional bluegrass and Americana, shifting the repertoire between his own sterling instrumental compositions and an array of covers that touched on works by Leadbelly, Chick Corea, Paul Simon and Tom Waits.

He interspersed the 90 minute program with stories that reflected a sense of wry and aloof humor, including a tale that outlined his embarrassment over a Leo Kottke-like melody that briefly erupted out the otherwise reflective “A Peaceful Return.” Pulled from one of his most underrated albums (1989’s “Plant Early”), the tune largely encapsulated the charm of Douglas’s playing. It presented a lyricism reflective of new grass’ at-times pastoral spirit interspersed with instances where the music’s simmering tension couldn’t help but explode.

The same thing happened during a medley of tunes that grew out of Flatt & Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Rock.” The playing adhered to the kind of traditionalism that distinguishes the Earls of Leicester. But at several instances, the winding turns in Douglas’ wiry slide playing seemed to grab hold of notes before shaking them vigorously. You could practically see the reverberations emanating from the music.

During the title tune to his 2017 album “What If,” performed as sunset was in full glory at the Castle, the more progressive ingenuity of Douglas’ playing was placed front and center. On record, the composition is orchestrated by horns, fiddle and a rhythm section. On his own, the dobro weaved its way and out of a series of loop-style arpeggios that created an almost Philip Glass-like effect.

Everything came to rest in a medley of Paul Simon’s “An American Tune,” which underscored the most tranquil phrasing within Douglas’ playing, and Chick Corea’s “Spain,” which revisited the rhythmic jazz playfulness that ignited Douglas’ pioneering music decades ago.

And the setting? Just lovely. Though sold out, the performance maintained an inviting sense of intimacy. And the sound? Remarkably crisp, especially for an open air setting.

As with last week’s McEuen concert (which was held under a tent at ground level due to the inclement weather), those attending seemed as much enamored with the Castle’s atmosphere than the artist playing there. Sure, there were plenty of bluegrass stalwarts on hand familiar with Douglas’ connection to the music and his place within that music’s legacy. But there also were many who seemed to be taking in the concert purely as a social activity. And that’s fine, because more than a few of them left seemingly (and, in all likelihood, unexpectedly) taken by the music they had experienced.

“Is he a rock star?” one patron commented to another upon exiting.

Yes, ma’am, he is. Jerry Douglas is a rock star fit for a Castle.

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