Steep Canyon Rangers at Carnegie Hall, Concert Review

There’s that moment just before the music starts, a tiny gasp of silence, the anticipation of what’s about to unfold to the listener. It’s an infintesimal moment in the big scheme of things, but gives to us an imperative spark of hope for all sounds lovely. This moment was found Friday night at Carnegie Hall, between the introduction, over which you could hear the instruments warming up backstage, and when the suited-up Steep Canyon Rangers began the wailing, “If I could make a livin’ lovin’ pretty women, I could do just what I pleased, I could make a killin…” A fine start to the autumn night’s range of bluegrass selections it was.

Hailing and formed from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, there were no surprises in the instrumental framework, with your run of the mill combination of instruments that make up many bluegrass bands, traditional or otherwise. The band was comprised of: classically trained Charles R. Humphrey III on upright bass, a fine songwriter as well as bassist ; Mike Guggino, mandolinist and NC native, who didn’t even listen to bluegrass until college, when he was turned on to the mandolin style and legend of Bill Monroe, via a pathway of stepping stones made up of Hot Rize, Seldom Scene, and New Grass Revival ; Graham Sharp, who only began playing banjo in college and has since written more than thirty songs for the Rangers ; Woody Platt, who got his start at age 8 in the Carolina Boys Choir, and now pretty much fronts the band, singing and playing guitar (he also founded the Mountain Song Festival) ; and last but not least, the animated and ever-spirited violinist Nicky Sanders, former concertmaster of California’s Young People’s Symphony Orchestra and then excelling attendee of Berklee College of Music where he studied Jazz, Bluegrass and Composition. It shows.

This past year has been quite a ride for these guys. In March 2011, the band released its first collaborative record with Steve Martin, “Rare Bird Alert” which debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Chart and at #43 on the Billboard Top 200. In 2010, their solo record ”Deep In The Shade”, remained in the Bluegrass Top 10 on Billboard for 18 weeks. They have headlined at MerleFest and Bonnaroo alongside Steve Martin and have performed as their familiar quintet on the stages of Telluride, RockyGrass, and “A Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor. They’ve made appearances on ”Late Night With David Letterman”, ”The Colbert Report” & ”Austin City Limits.”

A rollicking, toe-tapping, wanna-be-singing-too mood was set, and to watch this band in its perfection was musically gratifying. They moved effortlessly from one original selection to another, one of my favorites being “Graveyard Fields”, a tune written by Guggino. It was followed by one of several gospel-flavored compositions called “Be Still Moses”, and IBMA nominated tune, where they gathered the old-fashioned way around one microphone and sang their hearts out with that more intimately hollow sound, an homage to the greats who came before them.

They moved on to such fan-favorites as “Ungrateful One”, based on Thomas Wolf’s Look Homeward Angel, his first novel (with which he intended to delve into “the strange and bitter magic of life.”) This song brought forth dark words from a father, odd and acrid, and conjured up images of resentment, hidden in a cheerful chord progression and spot-on harmonies. They went on to do “Natural Disaster”, a self-desribed Zydeco Rumba, which to me had something amiss if it was truly trying to chanel zydeco (should’ve ended on the FOUR!), and “The Old Stone House”, a beautiful haunting piece that started with the sparseness of just the fiddle and mandolin, and morphed into a melodic amalgamation of collaborative perfection. They did an incredible call-and-response a capella gospel song that went, “You know I cant sit down, I just got to heaven and I want to look around…”Their show was a journey of interesting blends of the very new, the tried-and-true, leaving room for a time for everyone to shine, and much deservedly so, the fiddler Nicky Sanders. He jumped and jigged and seemed to play the music with his whole body. He really outdid himself on a medley near the end of the show, made up of minuets, theme songs, wild improvisations laced with traditional licks and lines. A standing ovation was due, and was delivered with enthusiasm.

Through their performance, I could hear the influences of Tim O’Brien, Bela Fleck, even Chris Isaack, while they still gave a certain reverance to the old timers like Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe, with their rock-a-billy backbeat to propel it to the era where the Rangers’ music has come to rest. They provide evidence that bluegrass music can be adapted to the times without losing respect for those who came before. And it helps if musical perfection is achieved; dedication and a sense of history are that much more meaningful if you work hard to preserve them through your own way of putting the music out there.

So when a band comes to your town and they take the stage for strangers, their music has to speak for them. That hushed moment before the notes ring out is the wait. What the wait is FOR is to absorb and receive the way a band’s musical interpretation, technical prowess, and artistic style says, “This is our music. This is what we do, this is who we are…” Nice show.

– Susanna Robinson-Kenga, LBSPY #18

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