in performance: the earls of leicester

The Earls of Leicester.

It was the last concert of the year for the Earls of Leicester on Sunday evening at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. So in explaining the band’s eagerness in hitting the road and heading home, band founder and overall ringmaster Jerry Douglas offered a proclamation on the onset of the evening.

“We’re going to play real fast.”

A joke? And if not, a feckless excuse for getting a concert over and done with? The answers: Definitely no to the latter and sorta kinda to the former. The thing is, the whole deal with the Earls is bluegrass – specifically, the still soulful and technically audacious repertoire of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, so playing “real fast” is something of a requisite.

Yes, the Earls made quick business of things at the Lyric, cramming 25 tunes into a set that clocked in at just under 90 minutes. And while audience patrons did have to figuratively strap themselves in to keep up with the lightning pace, no one was short changed. The musicianship was typically authoritative, the harmonies were sublime (especially the frequent four-part blend that draped the more patiently paced tunes as well as the warp speed numbers) and the band spirit was bold enough to suggest no one was enjoying this wrap party of a performance more than the players onstage.

With only one exception (a fun cover of Roger Miller’s “In the Summertime”), the setlist was drawn exclusively from the Flatt & Scruggs catalog, from Charlie Cushman’s take on Scruggs’ wild shifts in banjo tuning during “Flint Hill Special” (which closed the concert) to guitarist Shawn Camp’s light and inviting Flatt-style presence as an emcee as well as vocalist to the irrepressibly joyous runs on fiddle by Johnny Warren (the son of original Foggy Mountain Boys fiddle man Paul Warren).

There were a few new faces in the lineup, too. Specifically, Ashby Frank subbed for Jeff White on mandolin while Daniel Kimbro took over for Barry Bales on bass. But the transition was seamless. “I’ll Go Stepping Too” still breezed along with effortless string music cheer, “White House Blues” still raced with delirious speed and agility and “Paul and Silas” still used the Earls’ potent harmonies to fuel an impassioned gospel feel.

That left, as Camp called him, “Uncle Flux” – the mighty Douglas. Unlike his own projects, the Earls’ sense of ensemble stamina and performance economy left minimal room to showcase his full dexterity on the dobro. But since Flatt & Scruggs dobro great Josh Graves, a musical mentor for Douglas, had to operate with similar efficiency in the Foggy Mountain Boys, the Earls’ dobro lines were delivered with a concise but very defined drive.

For those needing something just a touch more demonstrative, though, there was the instrumental medley of “Spanish Two Step” and “Steel Guitar Blues,” an astonishing display of tone and tempo where the spirit of Graves and ingenuity of Douglas merged into a singular, fiery celebration of bluegrass tradition.

Had the Earls been able to convert that kind of energy into bus fuel for the ride back home… well, let’s just say there would have quite a few startled state troopers along I-65 on Sunday night.



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