Wednesday, July 4, 2012

An Accidental Musical Odyssey

No Concern of Yours - Punch Brothers (mp3)
#6 Barn Dance - Mountain Heart (mp3)

Before our car broke down, I thrilled at the chance to spend a weekend in Athens, Georgia. The musical history of this old college town is at least vaguely familiar to most modern music fans. I’m not sure the phrase “college rock” was even used much before REM and the Athens Revolution began in the early ‘80s at places like The 40 Watt Club.

Point being, Athens is to lovers of ‘80s alternative rock what Italy is for lovers of Renaissance Art. It’s the birthplace, or the adolescent stomping grounds, for many of the bands that set the groundwork for the musical taste of many in my generation.

I went expecting Alternative. Instead I just got educated on alternatives.

The inn where we stayed, The Foundry, is adjacent to one of Athens’ most lively music venues, The Melting Point. When I found out our room key gained us admission to most of the events, following a rehearsal dinner, I partook in the latter part of a Friday night concert from the Jeff Sipe Group.

It was, as best I can surmise, a rare look into live jazz fusion. Having minimal exposure or knowledge of “jazz fusion,” this categorization is merely a guess. It felt jazzy. It felt fused. One guy played a mean six-string bass, and the drummer seemed to run the show. Not really my thing, but not altogether unappealing.

On Saturday, our car broke down. My family rented a car and headed home on Sunday, and I was left behind to deal with our crippled SUV. The silver lining was a chance to attend The Classic City American Music Festival, an all-day bluegrass/folk event held next door at The Melting Point, ensuring that I could both drown my sorrows without need for transportation, all while enjoying some high-quality music.

I’m only slightly less ignorant of bluegrass than jazz. Nickel Creek and Chris Thile projects, samplings of bands like Cast Iron Filter and .357 String Band... this is more or less the extent of my knowledge. If it has a mandolin, I’m probably gonna pay attention. Mandolins and bagpipes are two instruments that affect me in deep, primal ways that go beyond whether I “like” them. Jazz isn’t big on mandolins or bagpipes, so it gets less of my ear.

What I learned over the course of my Sunday crash course in old and new school bluegrass is that the genre has a lot in common with jazz fusion and jam bands. Except without drummers. Often as not, the “songs” are an excuse to highlight and celebrate the individual talents of the musicians on stage. Most if not all the separate instruments are given a solo moment, or several solo moments, over the course of 5-10 minutes.

The talent of the performers was beyond dispute. From openers The Hobohemians to the final act of my 10-band run*, Mountain Heart, I was mostly reminded that a ton of musical talent rarely translates into fame or riches.

Another realization: the more other musical genres influence a bluegrass act, the more likely it appeals to me. A young group, Four Thieves,” found a good bit of inspiration from punk, and a group of college-age girls in front of me called them “a bluegrass boy band.” They were aggressive and energetic and fun, even when their instruments were a tinge out of tune.

The Jim White Band offered a more mellow take. The lead singer reminded me of David Byrne. The dude on electric guitar looked like a thinner George Lucas. The keyboardist reminded me of Murdock from The A-Team. And the guy on bass was playing what seemed to be a ukelele. Never heard of it, but apparently it’s a real thing. Their songs were as quirky as their look, but in a good way.

Sans Abri, a side project of The Packway Handle Band (aka the headliners I missed), was a two-man act, mostly on the mandolin and acoustic, and to categorize the sound merely as bluegrass would be misguided. It had feet planted in both alt-country and classic rock as well, and they put on the kind of performance that had me hating not staying up for their full band.

Finally, Mountain Heart brought it. Pure and simple, they brought it.

I knew they were on a different level when they opened their act by strongly encouraging, then almost demanding, that people stand at the base of the stage rather than stay safely back in their seats. The sound was this interesting mishmash of high-octane, high-speed bluegrass jamming and an occasional foray into bluesy rock. The lead singer’s voice and piano skills weren’t necessarily made for the bluegrass arena (I don’t recall hearing lots of piano in bluegrass; am I wrong?), which helps a novice like me adapt.

While Bob and I have often debated the merits of live music over the studio versions, I must concede defeat to him in regards to bluegrass. What mostly fails to gain my ear coming through a stereo had the capacity, when played on stage mere dozens of feet from me, to hold my attention for an entire day. No act before the final two played longer than 45 minutes, and when one folded up at one stage, another was ready and beginning at the other. It was like a day-long sampler into the genre, and it was intoxicating.

* -- (I missed the last two bands... it was getting late and I had a broken-down car to deal with first thing in the morning)


goofytakemyhand said...

RE: Jim White Band

He's a great storyteller - look for his NPR Tiny Desk concert or his BBC documentary "Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus."

Would love to see him, but alas, he rarely tours.

No Such Place is a good starting point. I bought it senior year of high school. Bob hated it. Jim's definitely an acquired taste.

Bob said...

Bob, meaning me, hated it? I've been a Jim White fan for years, at least of his duet with Aimee Mann, "Static On The Radio."

Billy said...

He was quite peculiar, but he fit into the scheme of the day very nicely, and the sound was a welcome and mellowed out respite from a generally higher-octane experience.

Bob said...

Billy, I gotta say, man, it's been a great musical summer all the way around and only half over.

Yesterday, we spent nearly four hours (great on a car trip) using the evil Spotify to take turns playing quintessential American songs. The only rule: no repeat of artist. Started with "Surfin' USA" and ended with "American Pie," and in between went everywhere from Marvin Gaye to Iron and Wine to Lee Greenwood to Lauryn Hill. Fun. "American Roulette" holds up. And rocks.