Abigail Washburn

Ricky Skaggs, Punch Brothers, Nancy Griffith and Abigail Washburn at BB King

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We’ve seen Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder a couple of times, most recently in June 2008. When we saw that they were performing at BB King, we knew we’d be there. The only other act listed on the bill was Abigail Washburn, opening for Ricky. We’ve seen Abigail a number of times, so that was a plus.

What we didn’t know was that two other bands were also performing, sandwiched in between Abigail and Ricky. Since one of them was the highlight of the evening (definitely for us, likely for many/most in the audience), I’ll break my normal format and start with them.

The third act up was the Punch Brothers. I can’t tell you how excited I was when Abigail mentioned that they were on the bill. I’ll gush about each of them in a minute, but the main reason is their leader, Chris Thile. In my opinion, he’s the best mandolin player in the world (there, I said it!). We own four of his solo CDs and all of his Nickel Creek CDs as well (which I simply can’t get enough of).

Chris has unbelievable stage presence. He’s only 29 (soon 30), but he recorded his first CD when he was 13, so he has a ton of experience. His talent would be enough to carry him even if he were wooden on stage, but thankfully, he’s loose and natural and made us laugh throughout his set.

ChrisThileTalking

He sings really well, writes superb songs, and oh yeah, there’s that mandolin magic that simply boggles the mind.

ChrisThileMandolin

I can’t imagine a musician that wouldn’t want to play with him. Conversely, I can’t imagine him having someone in his band that wasn’t superb. That is certainly the case for the members of Punch Brothers.

Chris was center stage. Here are the other members of the group, standing left-to-right:

Gabe Witcher on violin and vocals. Fantastic on the fiddle/violin. Wonderful voice, singing lead and harmony.

GabeWitcher

Chris Eldridge on acoustic guitar and vocals. Amazing flat picking on the guitar. Excellent vocals, mostly three-part harmony with Gabe and Chris Thile.

ChrisEldridge

Paul Kowert on upright bass (no good individual link). Paul is the only person in Punch Brothers who didn’t sing (or even speak). His bass play says it all though, both with a bow and plucking. He’s incredible.

PaulKowert

Noam Pikelny on banjo and vocals. Folks, everyone in Punch Brothers is a world-class musician. Noam is a cut above your average world-class musician. He’s unreal. He’s also subtle. Many top banjo players hack at the strings (not that there’s anything wrong with that, I love that style). Noam can do a lot more with a banjo.

NoamPikelny

A few months ago, he was the winner of the inaugural Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. Check out the judges (including Bela Fleck, perhaps the best banjo player in the world!). I certainly have no quibble with their choice.

Noam didn’t sing much, but he did create four-part harmony on occasion. Most notable was a dryly delivered quip that had the audience burst out laughing. Between songs, he casually stepped up to the mic and in a deceptively deep voice said the following:

For those of us who live in NYC, playing in this neighborhood is incredibly special, given that it’s the last refuge remaining in this great city!

For the one reader who may not know where BB King is, it’s in the heart of Times Square. Everyone in the audience got it and the line was delivered perfectly.

All I can tell you is that the Punch Brothers awed on every single number. We took our goddaughter with us (her husband had to cancel at the last second for a work emergency). When she got home, she immediately bought their latest CD, Antifogmatic!

They are currently nominated for a Grammy. The song, New Chance Blues is available for free download on the front page of their site (linked above), in exchange for your email address!

Back to my normal format of covering acts from the headliner backwards (don’t worry, I won’t repeat the Punch Brothers section). Winking smile

Ricky Skaggs has been a superstar for years. He was a major Country star. More than 10 years ago, he dedicated himself to Bluegrass. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Bluegrass, whether you like the style or not (we love it), Bluegrass attracts some of the best musicians in the world. Ricky and his band (Kentucky Thunder) are no exceptions.

Last night he broke his Bluegrass-only streak. He opened the show with a few Country numbers. They were great. He played an electric guitar and lit it up.

RickySkaggsElectricGuitar

Then he switched gears and played a few songs from his new CD, Mosaic. He started with the title song. To say that the mood changed dramatically in the place would be an understatement. He received applause after each song, but many were polite and in general it was shorter than the first few songs.

After two more from Mosaic, a number of people in the crowd were saying “Play some Bluegrass” loud enough, but no one yelled in a heckling or disrespectful manner.

Eventually, Ricky got to the Bluegrass portion of the show. The crowd went nuts. He broke out the mandolin (of which he is one of the best!) and tore it up.

RickySkaggsMandolin

When Ricky performed Country and the Mosaic numbers, there were 10 people on stage. For the Bluegrass set, the drummer, lead electric guitar and electronic keyboards people left, leaving the core seven people that typically perform in Kentucky Thunder.

Ed Faris and Paul Brewster both play rhythm guitar. The magic that they bring to the group is their absolutely incredible harmony with Ricky Skaggs. The three of them make vocal magic on practically every song.

EdFarisPaulBrewster

Andy Leftwich played the fiddle. He’s always incredible (we’ve seen him at least two times) but last night he was on fire (or I bet his fingers were!). He played mandolin on a couple of songs as well.

AndyLeftwich

Cody Kilby flat picking the guitar. Cody is one of my all-time favorite flat pickers. That you couldn’t hear a single note during the Country and Mosaic part of the set is a crime that should be punishable by a 10-year prison term! Thankfully, he got to work his magic during the 30-minute Bluegrass set. Unfortunately, even then, he was the only one under-mic’ed, but I could still hear and see his brilliance.

CodyKilby

Mark Fain on bass. Marked played electric bass during the Country and Mosaic portions and upright during the Bluegrass. Great on both instruments.

Finally, a very sad note, coupled with a very happy one. I can’t tell you how much I was looking forward to seeing Ricky’s banjo player, Jim Mills. I have been mesmerized by him each time we’ve seen him perform. He’s in my top five favorite banjo players. I don’t know what rock I’ve been living under, but Jim left Ricky roughly six months ago, after playing in Kentucky Thunder for 14 years!

On the plus side, another of my favorite all-around musicians replaced him.

Justin Moses played the banjo, dobro and mandolin. I own his solo CD which is awesome. He was the fiddle player in the Dan Tyminski Band (where he also played banjo and dobro). He’s an extraordinary fiddle player, but that job belongs to Andy. While I’ve heard him play banjo with Dan, I didn’t fully appreciate how excellent he is on the banjo until I heard him last night.

JustinMosesBanjo

He played the dobro throughout the Country and Mosaic sets. I know he’s excellent on the dobro from the Dan Tyminski shows we attended. Unfortunately, as with Cody, he was totally drowned out when he played the dobro, I couldn’t pick out a single note.

JustinMosesDobro

I thoroughly enjoyed the Country part of the set (even though I couldn’t hear Colby or Justin), but my dinner companions did not. None of us enjoyed the Mosaic portion of the evening. Oh well, at least he ended with 30 minutes that had the crowd enthralled!

Continuing backwards, skipping over the Punch Brothers.

Another surprise for us was the second act.

Nanci Griffith is a well-known singer/songwriter. We’ve never seen her before, so it was a real treat. She did a wonderful job.

NanciGriffith

We have friends whose favorite group is The Kennedys. We’ve never seen them. They were part of Nancy’s band last night and I totally understand why our friends love them. Maura has a wonderful voice, and Pat played the guitar amazingly and sang harmony.

MauraKennedyPatKennedy

Pat McInerney played the drums really well. He’s been accompanying Nancy for 22 years!

PatMcInerney

I don’t recall the name of the guitar player who accompanied them (apologies). He too sang well, and played well when he wasn’t having technical difficulties.

NanciGriffithGuitarist

A very nice set all around.

Opening the show was Abigail Washburn. We’ve seen Abigail a number of times. We really like Abigail as a person. She has a lovely voice and plays the banjo well. Unfortunately, her set selection rarely thrills us. She has the talent to do so, so it’s more a matter of mismatched taste between what she wants to play and what we want to hear.

AbigailWashburn

She has a new configuration for her band. We hadn’t seen any of them before. They’re all excellent (no surprise).

Kai Welch on keyboards, guitar and harmony. Kai is the main collaborator with Abigail on her new CD. He is the inspiration of her new style and exploration. He is a very good musician and sings wonderfully.

KaiWelchKeyboardsKaiWelchGuitar

Rayna Gellert on the fiddle. Excellent! Abigail teased her that she’s not dramatic enough. Perhaps, but she thrills nonetheless.

RaynaGellert

Alana Rockland (no good link) on electric and upright bass. It’s not often that I see female bass players. Given how talented Alana is, I hope to see more of them, soon!

AlanaRockland

Jamie Dick (also no good link) on drums. Solid throughout the set.

JamieDick

All in all, an epic night of music. The show started at 7:30pm and ended at 11:15.

We had an excellent meal before the show started. I always recommend that you come early for a BB King show and enjoy their wonderful southern comfort cuisine.

Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby at Wolftrap

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We saw this group at BB King in NYC nearly 18 months ago. I briefly mentioned the show, including that they were awesome, in my uber rediscovering live music post.

We’ve been to Wolftrap twice before, but both shows were at The Barns. Last night’s show was in the Filene Center, which is the main pavilion for concerts. It’s an outdoor venue, with a cavernous covered area with proper seating, and a large two-tiered lawn system that is completely outoors behind the main structure.

We bought our tickets months ago and even back then were forced to select seats way to the right of the stage. They were in the fourth row, so that part was great, but we were three and four seats off of the extreme right aisle. I’ll cover the opening act later (a group we’ve seen before and like as well).

Ricky, Bruce and Ricky’s band, called Kentucky Thunder came on stage at exactly 9pm. The crowd wasn’t just there for an evening out, as it was clear that they were giant fans of either Ricky, Bruce, or both (as we are).

Let’s do a 30,000 foot tour of what’s great about these guys:

  1. Bluegrass music is fantastic, and these guys are amazing, individually and collectively
  2. Ricky and Bruce have excellent voices, and sing great individually and collectively (great harmonies) together and most often with Paul Brewster
  3. Every single member of Kentucky Thunder is a phenomenal musician. I’ll call out three of them in a bit
  4. Ricky is one of the best mandolin players
  5. Bruce is a mind-bogglingly great piano player
  6. Each has written a body of music that stands the test of time
  7. They are fun and have tremendous stage presence

I could go on, but if you don’t get the point already, a few more whacks on the head won’t convince you. 😉

Last year they released a CD called Ricky Skagss & Bruce Hornsby (catchy title). In March of this year, they released another, named Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 & 1947. They played a bunch of songs from both CDs. They also played a few more of Bruce’s big hits, done reasonably differently than the original Bruce Hornsby and The Range versions.

For the most part, the Bluegrass versions (of Bruce’s songs) work great (even though I still prefer the originals). In the case of Mandolin Rain (which is on last year’s CD), it’s not even 20% as good as the original (IMHO). It’s cool, and if I didn’t know the original, I would like it more, but I feel teased when I hear this version. A better example is their rendition of The Way It Is (title cut from Bruce’s album of same name). It’s a really great Bluegrass version (though I still like the original a little more).

As you’ll see below, Lois didn’t have her usual unfettered access to the camera during the show. She didn’t get off many shots to begin with, and under the circumstances, most of the shots came out poorly at best (lots of ghosting and lighting problems). I would have foregone putting any pictures in the post, but Lois works hard for all of you, so to honor her effort, I’ll put them in. I won’t make any more excuses on each individual picture, this is my one disclaimer. Please don’t blame her photography skills for the results… 😉

I’ve already said that both Bruce (on piano) and Ricky (mostly mandolin, but also amazing on guitar on three numbers) are incredible. Let’s cover the rest of the band, left-to-right on the stage.

The only guy to the left of the grand piano, and reasonably far behind it in the back of the stage, is Andy Leftwich on fiddle. He’s truly amazing. We’ve seen some great fiddlers in the past year, so I’m not sure I can say that Andy is the best of the best, but I’m equally unsure of any flaws that he has that would keep him out of that group, so suffice it to say he’s a joy to listen to! Andy was obscured from our view the entire night, so unfortunately, no photos of him.

Behind the piano, just to the right of it, dead-center stage, is Mark Fain on upright bass. Excellent all night, but only highlighted in one number, late in the evening. Solid, never a distraction.

Mark Fain

Toward the right side of the stage were three acoustic guitarists in a row (slightlly unusual). The first of them is Cody Kilby. Of the three, he plays primarily lead guitar. Run, don’t walk, to his MySpace page and listen to the four songs on there. His fingers move so fast and his leads are extremely interesting. I had to stare at his fingers to really beleive that one man could make the sounds that came out of his guitar. It sounded like two great lead guitarists playing at the same time. Nope, it was all Cody. Wow! I’m definitely getting his new CD!

Next was Ben Helson. Bruce introduced Ben as being new to the band. Unfortunately, the Wikipedia page I linked to above shows him as a former band member, and still shows Darrin Vincent on the main page. In any case, it’s definitely Ben in the middle of the guitar trio. He plays excellent rhythm guitar and sings backup vocals on a very few numbers. Solid, but not highlighted at all.

Next was Paul Brewster. Also played rhythm guitar, but featured on background vocals on nearly every song. He has an excellent voice, complementing Bruce, Ricky and both together whenever he joined in.

The three guitarists together:

Kentucky Thunder Guitarists

Finally, Jim Mills on banjo. He has won quite a number of Banjo Player of the Year awards (the site says four, but I recall Ricky say six or seven when we saw them at BB King last year). He definitely deserves it. His banjo playing is so crisp, clean, fast, interesting, driving. We’ve seen some truly great banjo players in the past year as well (like with the fiddle and mandolin players), and for my taste, Jim is probably in third, very (very) close to number two. My top pick is Bela Fleck (more on him in a minute). Second is Ron Stewart (currently part of the Dan Tyminski Band).

Here is Kentucky Thunder, minus Andy Leftwich, who is to the left and behind the piano, out of our view:

Kentucky Thunder Minus Andy Leftwich

Here is a YouTube video of Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. There are a few nice highlights of Andy playing fiddle, Ricky on the mandolin and Cody on guitar.

In the middle of the set, they asked anyone in the crowd who wanted to come up and do some clog dancing to join. No one volunteered, and you had to wonder whether people thought they were just joking around. After some more teasing a few people climbed the stage, which started a flood. There were roughly 30 people on stage with them, dancing around in a frenzy. It was cool.

Cloggers Ricky Skaggs

It also highlighted a truly idiotic policy on the part of Wolftrap. There are a few signs around (not all that prominent, but also not invisible) that there is no photography permitted (even without a flash). That’s just silly in this day and age. Of course, not only were tons of people taking photos throughout the show, many were doing it with flash on as well. Ushers were flying all over the place admonishing people, even as others a few rows away kept snapping.

The reason I say that the clogging highlighted it is that even with 30 people on the stage dancing around, clearly to the delight of the crowd, ushers were trying to stop people from taking pictures (of their loved ones, etc.). Truly silly, but what can you do… Lois got off some shots (and got yelled at once) but she took five percent of the number of shots she would have if it was permitted. She never uses a flash during a performance, even if it’s allowed.

I will come back to one cool part later (you’ll understand why I’ll tell that part out of order when I get to it).

They played an amazing 97 minutes before saying goodnight. After a rousing standing ovation, Ricky, Bruce and Jim Mills came out on the stage alone. For this one number, Ricky played the fiddle (really well!) and Bruce played the accordion (to the delight of the crowd!). Then the rest of the band came out and rocked the house with another full-energy number which ended with another standing ovation. Total time on stage 112 minutes of pure joy!

Here are Bruce on the accordion and Ricky on the fiddle during the first song of the encore:

Bruce Hornsby Ricky Skaggs

The opening act was Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet. They too have a new CD out called Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet. We saw them at Joe’s Pub in January this year, described briefly (by my normal standard) 😉 in this post.

I mentioned above that Bela Fleck is my favorite banjo player. He plays every conceivable style (bluegrass, classical, jazz, country, dirges, etc.), all fantastically. Abigail Washburn has a great voice, and plays the banjo extremely well too. Casey Driessen is an incredible fiddle player and Ben Sollee is a superb cello player who also sings gorgeous harmony with Abigail.

Here’s a shot of Abigail and Bela. Ben and Casey were obscured in this photo so I cropped them:

Abigail Washburn Bela Fleck

The four of them play extraordinary instrumentals. That said, while Abigail’s voice is wonderful, her song selection leaves Lois and I a bit puzzled (in both concerts). They could be a super group, but the selection will relegate them to also-rans in my opinion. Lovely sound, well executed, but just off target…

They came on stage at 7:58pm (two minutes early, a rarity indeed). They were introduced, and started playing at 7:59pm. They left the stage at 7:47, so they gave a very nice warm-up show, with very little down time between acts. I was very impressed by Wolftrap in that regard!

The surprise I alluded to above is that well into the Ricky and Bruce show, they invited Bela to play with them. He’s recorded with Bruce a couple of times (and probably Ricky as well). He was on stage with them for 25 minutes (very nice indeed) and on one number, played a cool banjo duet with Jim Mills. Tons of fun. Bela is just a superstar in my opinion.

Ricky Skaggs Bela Fleck

Wolftrap can hold 7,028 people in total (at Filene), with 3,868 under the structure and 3,160 on the lawn. During the Sparrow Quartet set, there were hundreds of seats empty including the six to Lois’ immediate left. There were entire sections left and right of the stage, at the back of the seating area, without a single person in them. We were shocked, given that I didn’t have that much choice when I purchased tickets months ago.

I assumed that when Ricky and Bruce came on, it would be full. It wasn’t. Barely a few dozen of the empty seats were filled in the intervening 13 minutes between performances, so we slid down five seats and got a better angle for the main event. By the time the show was over, the seats were practically full (an empty seat here or there, like the one Lois left empty between her and the person she slid down next to). I don’t know if people just showed up late, or if they allowed people from the lawn to come down. The lawn still seemed pretty crowded so it could have just been late folk.

Anyway, a fantastic show all around that we thoroughly enjoyed.

On the downside of the evening, getting out of the parking lot there is a total zoo. It took nearly 30 minutes to get out. Then we were making great time down I495/I95. When we were 15 minutes from the hotel, taffic came to a dead stop. Oh oh. Highway repaving. Fun. It made the last 15 minutes take 45 minutes, which turned out to be not as bad as it first appeared it would be. Still, we didn’t get to bed until nearly 1am, which for us, is the equivalent of dawn. We slept for 5.5 hours and came back to the office, exhausted, of course…

Abigail Washburn and Sparrow Quartet at Joe’s Pub

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At the bottom of this very long post, I mentioned that Lois and a friend were going to see Abigail Washburn at Joe’s Pub, on April 3rd, 2007. I went to see the Allman Brothers Band on the same night with that friend’s husband, so I didn’t blog about Abigail, even though Lois gave me a complete update.

Lois really enjoyed the show, which was Abigail playing banjo along with Ben Sollee playing cello. She bought two of Abigail’s CDs after the show. One thing that makes Abigail different is that she’s fluent in Mandarin, and writes and sings a good portion of her repertoire in Chinese!

I listened to both CDs while exercising, and while I liked both of them, I got a little tired of the Chinese (which I enjoyed on the first cut) after the third or fourth song that was in Chinese.

Her life story is fascinating, and well worth the read on her site (click on Bio on the bottom left of the screen).

Last night, she played at Joe’s Pub again, this time with her new quartet (Sparrow Quartet). In addition to Ben Sollee (mentioned above), the quartet includes Bela Fleck and Casey Driessen.

Bela is considered by many to be one of the greatest banjo players in the world. Casey is an extraordinary fiddle player. I had never seen Bela, and wasn’t familiar with his music, but I certainly had heard of him, in particular Bela Fleck and The Flecktones. His bio is fascinating too. Among many interesting facts is that he holds the record for most categories of Grammy nominations. In other words, he’s an exceptionally talented person!

I was particularly interested in hearing them, because I love banjo playing, and hearing two banjos on the same stage is unusual.

Whew, lots of background…

A quick word on the meal. Chocolate Martini was perfect, as always. Seared Tuna was as delectable as always (done to perfection). Joe’s Fries were yummy too! Absolutely perfect meal, which ended seconds before they took the stage, perfect timing on that front as well.

The concert was excellent. They are a talented group of people. Abigail had a cold, but she sounded great anyway, so I guess she sounds better on other nights, but I wasn’t disappointed.

That said, they only played one purely instrumental number (about 2/3 of the way through), and to me, it was by far the best number of the night. That’s not to take anything away from her voice, which is excellent. There is just a ton more energy in the group when they are jamming together, rather than accompanying Abigail.

While listening to a half dozen songs in Chinese was much more interesting live than on CD, it was at least a tad over the top (to me). A little more so for Lois.

Thoroughly enjoyable evening, and I would see them again live without hesitation. That said, I wouldn’t likely listen to a CD of last night’s performance, so (to me) this is more of an immersion experience than a just listen one.

Here is a YouTube video of them playing together in Shanghai. They sat in the same order (Fleck, Washburn, Sollee, Driessen) last night as well. I found it slightly ironic that this is a song done in English to a Chinese crowd, while we heard a bunch of Chinese delivered to an American crowd. 😉

Here is a much longer YouTube video, which includes music and interviews with all of them in Beijing. If you haven’t lost interest to this point, I found it quite enjoyable.

If you’re reading this today (Saturday, 1/12/2008) and you’re already in NYC, they are playing again tonight at BB King, so you can catch the show and decide for yourself! 🙂