in performance: steep canyon rangers/eric bolander

Steep Canyon Rangers. From left, Nicky Sanders, Barrett Smith, Woody Platt, Mike Guggino, Mike Ashworth and Graham Sharp. Photo by Sandlin Gaither.

It was with no small degree of irony that the Steep Canyon Rangers began their highly engaging performance last night at Manchester Music Hall with their two newest members going it alone – namely, drummer Mike Ashworth and bassist Barrett Smith. The rhythm section initiated a subtle groove that brought the rest of the Grammy winning North Carolina bluegrass troupe to the stage, turning the resulting momentum into the rhythmic sway of “Stand and Deliver.”

Wait a minute. Bluegrass bands have rhythm sections? Well sure, just not normally ones anchored by drums, as was the case with the continually evolving Rangers. Over the course of a one hour, 45-minute set, Ashworth didn’t simply embellish the grassy textures that more expected string instrumentation gave to tunes like “As I Go” and the encore finale of “The Speed We’re Traveling.” He also set up a driving jam (quickly commandeered by mandolinist Mike Guggino) during “Let Me Out of This Town,” provided Fairport Convention-esque Celtic propulsion under fiddler Nicky Sanders on “Take the Wheel” (where Smith took a guest turn on lead vocals) and dug in for a drum solo underscored by mandolin that eventually enlisted all of the Rangers for a giddy percussion romp.

While Ashworth’s prominence (augmented by his solid harmony singing throughout the performance) represented the biggest stylistic leap the Rangers have taken since their last Lexington visit in 2014, the rest of the show relied on essentials, like the juggling of lead vocal duties between guitarist Woody Platt and banjoist/songsmith Graham Sharp. Platt was at home with the easy country lyricism of “When She Was Mine” and a nicely relaxed cover of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” while Sharp employed more conversationally smoky vocal colors for “Simple at Me.”

All of these elements converged during the title tune to the 2013 Rangers album “Tell the Ones I Love” that placed the train whistle fiddling of Sanders, the joint vocals of Platt and Sharp and some wild ensemble dynamics that gave the music an almost respiratory rhythm within a single bluegrass statement that both bowed to tradition and dashed madly away from it.

Local hero Eric Bolander opened the evening with a very appealing 50-minute trio set that utilized cellist Seth Murphy and drummer/harmony vocalist Ben Caldwell for an Americana mix that placed restless folk confessions within Southern fried frameworks. What resulted were songs like “The Road, “Fly” and the new “Montgomery Hill” that were rustic, rootsy and often elegant.



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