in performance: steep canyon rangers

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

Leave it to the Steep Canyon Rangers to actually apologize to a Saturday night club crowd because they asked for a bit of silence during one of the quieter segments of its program.
That happened at Manchester Music Hall when the Grammy-winning bluegrass-and-more troupe trimmed its ranks and instrumentation for a few subtle passages played and harmonized around a single microphone. Most of the crowd readily complied while those at the bar near the back end of the cavernous room were oblivious and kept chatting. Such is life when you march to your own tune in a performance combat zone.
This was an intriguing moment for other reasons, as well. Playing around a lone mic is standard practice for a traditional bluegrass troupe. The Rangers’ music, however, is not dictated by historical protocol. Then again, the North Carolina band’s collective method of modernization didn’t travel an expected path, either.
The practice adopted by many contemporary bluegrass outfits is to approach songs with the accessibility and, ultimately, predictability of pop-informed country. That results in a lighter shade of a genre that is pretty weightless to begin with. The two-hour show favored music, much of which was penned by banjoist Graham Sharp, that steered clear of modern bluegrass sheen and sunshine to focus on meatier melodies and often darker themes.
“Stand and Deliver,” with Sharp’s sobering vocal lead, boasted a lyricism that grew out of a dub-style reggae groove propelled by drummer Mike Ashworth and mandolinist Mike Guggino. For the title tune to the 2013 Rangers album “Tell the Ones I Love,” a banjo melody from Sharp repeated almost as if it was on a loop, triggering vocal blends with guitarist Woody Platt that led to a lengthy ensemble jam. Then there was “Monumental Fool,” a heartbreak tune turned inward with another instrumental excursion that ended with the entire band on the drum riser fueling a percussive groove.
Yes, that right – a drum riser. At a bluegrass performance. But this was bluegrass rewritten to the Rangers specifications and fortified by a setlist that included, along with the mentioned examples, loads of new tunes. Slap all of this together and you had an evening of dynamics and invention that none of the Rangers needed to apologize for.

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