Chris Thile

Chris Thile and Michael Daves at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2

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Any Chris Thile show in NYC sells out, whether it’s with the Punch Brothers or with Michael Daves. Add a little special sauce, say a CD Release Show and you can be sure that the sellout will happen even more quickly.

Chris Thile and Michael Daves just released a new CD, Sleep With One Eye Open, on Tuesday this week. To celebrate, they scheduled three shows on consecutive nights (Tue/Wed/Thu) at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2. We were lucky enough to have a friend who alerted me to the impending ticket sales a day before they were available. We bought ours for the Wednesday night show (last night) as did a number of our friends.

ChrisThileMichaelDaves

There were two problems last night:

  1. Rockwood 2 had a problem with the air conditioner for about an hour and the place was hot (they worked feverishly and got it working roughly 30 minutes after the show started)
  2. Before they started playing, Chris announced that Michael had been stricken by The Pollen (something I’m familiar with because Lois has been similarly stricken for over a week, almost debilitatingly so!)

#2 couldn’t be solved by having a crew climb up and down through a tiny open tile in the ceiling (which is how they solved #1). Instead, 100% of the vocals were handled by Chris last night. While he made a very few flubs (all turned into highlight reel moments!), it was a qualitatively different experience. It was impressive to know that Chris paid attention to Michael’s parts when they were rehearsing, rather than dozing off. Winking smile

ChrisThileLaughing

Apologies for the photo quality. The lighting is never good for compact cameras, but it was darker than usual last night (which fit the mood just right, but made it worse for the camera), plus we were further from the stage than usual. All photos can be clicked on for larger sizes (that’s always true, even though I mention it every once in a while…)

I mentioned to a friend before the show started that I had never seen the Rockwood 2 stage as barren as it was last night, even when there was only a solo singer/songwriter performing. All instruments were removed. There were no amplifiers. No electrical chords of any kind. Just a single microphone (with a shock mount, not the typical mic’s they use in these types of shows).

Chris and Michael did not plug in their instruments (mandolin and guitar, respectively). They shared the one mic on stage for the vocals and the instruments. As intimate a setup as you can imagine, even though there were roughly 200 people getting to know each other really well (come to think of it, that’s pretty intimate in its own way).

ChrisThileMichaelDavesJamming

Both Chris and Michael were simply amazing. Aside from the fact that Chris was forced to sing all of the vocals, the two of them are a 50/50 team on this project. Even though Chris is an international superstar (perhaps the best mandolin player in the world, in my opinion), Michael gets as many leads on the guitar. At no time during a Michael Daves lead do you find yourself thinking “When will Chris take the reins again?”, that’s how lightning fast and interesting Michael is on the guitar.

They didn’t just play material from the new CD. In fact, Chris joked after the third song that they still hadn’t gotten to one that was on the new CD. No one was complaining, though I admit to still being curious as to what was on it. In the end, they did play quite a number of the songs (there are 16 on the CD) and I knew I would love the CD when I got my hands on it.

The show was split into two sets with a 12-minute intermission. Each set was over 50 minutes. Including the encore, they played for nearly 115 minutes (that excludes the intermission!).

During each set, there was a request portion that was obvious to many in the crowd (we’ve seen Chris and Michael separately, but never together, so we didn’t know what was coming). Even before Chris could get the words out: “You know what’s coming, it’s time for Fiddle Tunes!”, people were yelling out a dozen Fiddle Tunes for them to play.

During the first set, after conferring, Chris and Michael settled on three Fiddle Tunes, which they played consecutively, morphing one into the next, with no breaks. Awesome! The only thing missing was that Melissa Tong was sitting right near us and they could have forced her on the stage to have an actual fiddle player up there with them! But, given how blazingly fast both Chris and Michael are on their instruments, you could almost imagine a hard-sawing fiddle player up there.

During the second set, they agreed to do four consecutive tunes. Afterward, Chris joked that someone famousHoudini (of course, my old-man brain is blanking on exactly who now, sorry!Thanks Melissa!) died because theyhe tried to do five consecutive Fiddle Tunes. That’s why they had to stop at four. It would simply be too dangerous. Winking smile (In case you can’t easily see it, in the next photo, Chris is holding up four fingers as the crowd is going wild, literally!)

ChrisThileMichaelDavesFourInARow

During intermission, Lois ran up to the merch table and bought the CD. This morning, I listened to it two times straight through.

It’s an absolutely fantastic collection of traditional Bluegrass (Hill Country) music. As amazing as last night’s performance was, the CD is better (musically, not experientially). Michael’s voice is very distinctive and the two of them sing harmony really well. The mixer has their vocals and instruments at exactly the right levels throughout. There isn’t a weak song in the 16 and there are enough leads on both the mandolin and guitar to blow your mind multiple times.

ChrisThileMichaelDavesCDCoverChrisThileMichaelDavesBackOfCD

Well done, both live and in the studio!

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.

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

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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!

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

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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.

City Slickers Bluegrass Festival

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This past Saturday, May 9th, 2009, seven of us attended the City Slickers Bluegrass Festival in Richmond, VA. How and why we came to attend will be the subject of my next post, this one will just cover the event itself.

There were three headliners and one opening act. The opening act, Page Wilson with Reckless Abandon came on at 3pm. We weren’t able to get there until 3:30pm, so we caught the last 30 minutes of their set. Nothing worth mentioning (sorry), so I won’t waste space on them.

At 4:25pm, the first of the three headliners (and the one I was most curious to see live) came on, Sierra Hull. I was familiar with Sierra Hull because a very good friend of mine (an American who lives in the UK) bought me her CD (download on iTunes) a while ago. I loved it from the first listen (thanks again Chris!).

What I didn’t pay attention to until long after I loved the album was that Sierra was only 17-years-old (still is!) and that she plays the mandolin in addition to singing lead. I feel silly saying plays the mandolin, it sounds so mundane. I really love the mandolin, and I try to pay attention to the difference in style and abilities of the various top players.

Up until now, I would have rated my top three favorite mandolin players as follows:

  1. Chris Thile
  2. Adam Steffey
  3. Ricky Skaggs

Choosing between #2 and #3 above is a little arbitrary, they’re both so good. #1 however is a no-brainer for me. That’s still probably true, but I have to tell you, that after seeing Sierra Hull play for nearly 120 minutes (in two sets) on Saturday, I might slip her in between Chris and Adam. And, she’s only going to get better, I’m sure!

Lest you think I’m dissing Adam Steffey, here’s a quote on Sierra Hull’s site (front page) by Adam Steffey himself!

Sierra Hull is without doubt my favorite mandolin player!

See! 🙂 Sierra also played guitar (beautifully!) on roughly four numbers, but she was born to play the mandolin!

Backing up Sierra is a group called Highway 111.

Clay Hess plays the guitar and sings a ton with Sierra (lead and harmony). Clay is an awesome flatpicker, and he sings really well too.

Corey Walker played the banjo and sang as well. He’s really good. It was hysterical to hear Sierra (all of 17-years-old) saying “Can you believe how good Cory is, and he’s only 19?”. 🙂

Jacob Eller rounds out the band on the upright bass. Wonderful in every sense of the word.

The four of them blend beautifully together. Sierra is also as personable and commanding a stage presence as you could imagine, a seeming enigma for someone so young. The show would have been worth it just for Sierra’s two sets, but wait, there’s more! 🙂

Sierra Hull and Highway 111

Sierra Hull and Highway 111

Lois got her picture taken with Sierra right before Sierra’s second set. According to Lois, she’s as sweet and personable one-on-one as she is in front of the entire crowd!

Lois and Sierra Hull

Lois and Sierra Hull

At 5:45pm Seldom Scene came on the stage. As much as I love Bluegrass music (and trust me, I’m totally in love with the genre), I’m not a real aficionado of enough of the leaders in the category. I know a lot of groups which I love, but there are so many more that I’ve either never heard of, or have heard of but don’t really know their music.

Seldom Scene has been at the top of the Bluegrass world for over 30 years, but they fell into the category of heard of but not known by me. One of my friends (Richmond-based, but unfortunately out of town this past weekend) is a major fan, so I was really looking to finally getting to know them.

Wow! Even though these are no youngsters, they jam as well anyone blessed with youth. Their voices are amazing, individually and when singing harmony together. They are superb musicians, though none of them stood out to me like Sierra (folks, that’s not a complaint or a put-down of Seldom Scene band members). The songs were fantastic, and their 80 minute set was outstanding from the first note until the mandatory encore!

Seldom Scene

Seldom Scene

The second (literally) that the encore was over, the heavens opened up. They had predicted possible thunderstorms throughout the show, so it was nice that it held off until after 7pm, and waited until a natural intermission too. Severe lightning caused them to power down the sound board and stage. Better safe than sorry.

Sierra Hull was scheduled to come back on the stage at 7:30pm. Amazingly, shortly after that time, the rain stopped, and we were blessed with a cool evening. The show was only delayed 10 minutes, as Sierra was back on at 7:40! As I already noted above, she blew us all away again.

The final headliner to take the stage was The Grascals. Lois and I own three of their CDs, so we’re familiar with their music, and love it. I’m going to gush about them in a minute (including covering them individually), but take the time to read their bio to see how many awards they’ve won in their impressive but reasonably short career!

OK, you don’t win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Entertainers of the Year award (in consecutive years no less!) without being something extremely special. They are indeed very special. This was our first time seeing them live, and I was really looking forward to it!

They are all superb musicians, but the focus is really on the fiddle, banjo and mandolin. The bassist is superb, but not really highlighted, and the two guitarists support the sounds wonderfully, but they are never highlighted (even less than the bass!).

Standing left-to-right on the stage:

Danny Roberts on the mandolin. He’s really good. Very fast, very clean, very interesting licks. Highlighted a lot in most of their numbers.

Jeremy Abshire on the fiddle. Holy Cow! This guy is amazing. If I had to make the call, I’d say that The Grascals highlight him slightly more than the rest, but who could blame them. He’s outstanding in every respect. Fast as greased lightning, but always interesting.

Jamie Johnson on vocals and guitar. (No particularly good link to him personally, sorry.) Jamie is the main MC (Master of Ceremonies) for the group. He also sings a slight majority of the leads. He’s very funny, has a good voice, and keeps the action rolling throughout the show.

Terry Smith on vocals and bass. (Also no good direct link.) Terry anchors the group nicely on the bass. On one number, he played slap-style, and was awesome. Terry sings on all of the songs, lead on a few. More on that in a minute.

Terry Eldredge on vocals and guitar. (Again, no good personal links. This isn’t as big as surprise to me, as I mentioned above that neither of the guitarists is a solo star in their own right.) Terry shares the MC duties (he’s quite funny), and sings lead just a tad less than Jamie, otherwise singing on every number.

Kristin Scott Benson on the banjo. Another Holy Cow! Kristin is the current IBMA Banjo Player of the Year! A month after winning that honor, she joined The Grascals. (They need to change the picture on their site to include her!) 😉 Folks, she’s amazing! I think they highlight Jeremy on the fiddle a drop more than they do her, but not by much. On a few numbers, she plays a mind-boggling riff, and Jeremy follows it on the fiddle in his own mind-boggling way, and then Kristin goes again, in a dueling fashion. Incredible!

OK, since I did my three favorite Mandolin players above, I’ll do my three favorite Banjo players here:

  1. Bela Fleck
  2. Ron Stewart
  3. Jim Mills

As with the mandolin, I’m being somewhat arbitrary in ranking #2 and #3 above, as I could listen to both for hours on end. Also like the mandolin, I think Bela is simply the best, no questions asked. Ron Stewart currently plays banjo with the Dan Tyminski Band, and Jim Mills plays with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.

Anyway, while I might not alter the above list (as I think I would for Sierra Hull), it would be a close enough call to consider Kristin for the #2 or #3 spot, and I’ll confidently declare her in my top four! 😉

Terry Smith is probably the strongest vocalist of the three as a soloist, but he rarely solos for them. The other two (Jamie and the other Terry) are both good individually, but really nothing special in my opinion. But, when the three of them sing together (which is on nearly every song), they produce magic. The three of them are so tight, and their voices blend beautifully.

The Grascals are fantastic, and I look forward to seeing them live again.

Sorry about the quality of this next photo. It was already dark, and the lighting wasn’t good enough for our compact camera:

The Grascals

The Grascals

This was our first festival, so we were nervous whether we’d be able to sit outdoors, on folding chairs, for seven hours. It was a piece of cake, with fabulous music, good food (BBQ) and a well-run show.

Here we are, enjoying ourselves completely!

Lois and Hadar

Lois and Hadar

Thank you Rotary Club of Richmond, VA for putting on a helluva show. We’re already planning on returning next year!

Here’s a shot from behind the stage, to give you a sense of the beautiful and relaxed atmosphere of this event:

Behind the Stage

Behind the Stage

P.S. If you’ve made it this far, Bravo! I know I rambled on about how awesome Sierra Hull is, and perhaps you don’t want to hear any more about her. But, if you have more patience, here is a long, but fantastic article profiling her five years ago, when she was all of 12-years-old! Read it all the way to the end, it’s priceless!

Dan Tyminski Band at the Birchmere Theater

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I’ve known about the Birchmere Theater for at least six months now, perhaps a little more. For the past seven years that we’ve been coming down regularly to Fredericksburg, VA, we weren’t paying attention to the live music scene here, spending all of our music time in NY. That all changed when we saw The Wailin’ Jennys at Gravity Lounge in Charlotesville, VA on November 17th, 2007.

Ever since that event, I have at least paid a little attention to what’s going on in VA when we’re down here. Over time, I noticed that lots of artists that we truly love play the Birchmere. In reading about it, it sounded like a great place to see a show, and many famous artists claim their start at the Birchmere.

We nearly went there a few months ago, I think to see Ricky Skaggs (one of our favorites). One of our hesitations was that it was a general admission type of place. That can always be a risk. Many of our favorite places in NYC are general admission as well. While it can be annoying (and at times even painful), at least we know the drill at those places, and we play whatever game we need to in order to get good seats (most of the time). In the end, we decided not to risk it for Ricky, with other factors tipping the scale as well.

A while ago, I noticed that the Dan Tyminski Band was scheduled at the Birchmere on March 1, 2008 (last night). We love Dan Tyminski. He’s the primary guitar player in Union Station of Alison Krauss and Union Station Featuring Jerry Douglas fame. He’s also the voice of George Clooney (well, the singing voice) 😉 in the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou?

We saw Alison Krauss and Union Station at the Beacon Theater. Dan Tyminski was awesome that night, as were all of the members of Union Station. That included the bass player, Barry Bales, who is now the bass player for the Dan Tyminski Band as well. Not only is he an incredible bass player, he sings harmony on many numbers and his voice is fabulous!

We decided to take the plunge and get tickets. The night before we saw the Jennys at Gravity Lounge, we had dinner with two of the single employees at Zope Corporation. We asked them if they wanted to join us for the Jennys, but both had plans. They both indicated interest in being invited to a future event.

So, when we decided to see the Dan Tyminski Band, Lois send out a blind invitation to a number of the single people in the company that had expressed an interest in live music in the past. Two of them were available and interested, so we bought four tickets.

Because I didn’t know anything about the Birchmere, I made some assumptions, which (of course) turned out to be wrong. I gathered a list of 10 restaurants that were all very close to the theater, and sent links to three of them to the two guys. They both picked Lilians (which was likely my first choice as well). Here is how the one review (linked above) begins:

This place is rad. Imagine a squad of fine latin women dressed in short black skirts and revealing tops serving drinks and awesome Salvadoran and Mexican cuisine.

When I mentioned this to another friend of mine, he said “Sounds like a Spanish Hooters!” Indeed, I wonder why two single guys, roughly half my age, would have any interest in eating at Lilian’s? 😉

Yesterday morning, I did something that I should have done before I asked them where they wanted to eat. I went to the Birchmere website, and read their FAQ. I immediately found out that this place is like most of the general admission places in NYC, meaning they serve dinner at the place. That’s one of the few positives about general admission. You have to show up very early, but at least you can relax, eat, drink and enjoy yourself without then rushing to make it to the show.

Unfortunately, we never got to experience the Spanish Hooters directly, but perhaps, some day. I love Mexican food, enjoyed the one Salvadoran meal I’ve ever had, and now feel the overwhelming need to report back to my loyal readers whether the rest of the review is accurate as well. 😉

So, we picked up the two guys and headed north, early. My plan was to get there by 5pm when the ticket doors open, then perhaps wander around the neighborhood a bit, returning at 6pm when the theater doors open. The best laid plans…

I have a GPS (I’ve written about it before, when mentioning that it was one of the best gifts I’ve ever been given). I set the address and off we went. When I was coming up on the exit, I was telling a story. I heard the GPS telling me that I needed to make a left, but she’s often a little late with the voice prompts, and I was certainly late in following the directions. I missed the exit. No biggie, because the GPS always tells you what to do.

The only problem was that we ended up crossing the Potomac River into Washington, D.C, before she guided us back (yes, since the voice in the GPS is female, Lois and I believe that the GPS itself is a woman) so the detour was much longer than expected. We didn’t get to the theater until roughly 5:15pm. We received ticket number I11, and had no idea whether that was good or bad.

Different than all of the other general admission places that we’ve been to in NYC, there is a very large indoor space at the Birchmere, where you can comfortably wait until the 6pm doors open. There is a bar, but no pressure to buy any kind of drink. Lots of seats (tables and benches). What an incredibly nicer way to treat your early arrivers than in NYC, where we stand like idiots in a line on the sidewalks outside of our favorite clubs…

We relaxed and chatted. The 45 minutes passed quickly. At 5:57pm, they announced how the numbers (our I11) worked. They called out every single number, in order, so there was no reason to rush the door. Wow, exactly as the FAQ explained it, and on time like clockwork. Regular readers will know that my appreciation for this type of behavior is over the moon.

The Birchmere understands the two most critical rules of customer service:

  1. Communicate clearly with your customers and prospects (set expectations!)
  2. Deliver the exact experience that you communicated

Could it be any simpler than that? No, but it’s the rarest of companies that delivers even #1 (the easy one!), and you can count on one hand the number of companies that then deliver #2…

They started last night with H49. That meant that we would have a bit of a wait to be called, but it shouldn’t be too brutal. That was correct. H49-H99, then I00-I11. Roughly 15 minutes, I think. But, we were indoors, seated, and knew exactly when we would be called. More than acceptable.

When we got into the theater, we immediately liked what we saw. The layout was similar (with some very significant differences) to BB King in NYC. Lots of tables, most seating 12 people (some smaller tables as well). Nothing was left near the stage, but there was an empty table for 12 2/3’s of the way back on the left side of the stage, with what appeared to be a fantastic view of the stage. We grabbed the first two seats on either side of the table and settled in.

We ordered drinks and food (mostly comfort food, burgers, BBQ, chili, salads, etc.). Food was wonderful (I had the pulled pork BBQ sandwich with homemade chips and spicy coleslaw). Everyone liked their meal. Service was excellent.

I am pretty sure that the concert was sold out, but there was a seat or two empty, likely from people who ended up simply not showing up after buying their tickets. I tried to guess the number of people, and my guess was 600 tops, but definitely between 500-600. BB King seats 400, and this place seemed to seat more (not that it was larger, but BB King has the bar inside, where the space at the Birchmere was filled with tables).

The show started at exactly 7:30pm, as advertised. The band came out to wild applause, and began playing fairly quickly. They were instantly awesome. Five people on stage. I’ve covered two of them already (Dan and Barry Bales). From left-to-right, here were the remaining three players: Ron Stewart, Adam Steffey and Justin Moses.

Ron Stewart primarily played the banjo (amazingly), but also played a mean fiddle on a couple of tunes. Ron reminded me of poker superstar Daniel Negreanu, and I couldn’t get the image out of my mind of a poker-playing banjo player. Ron talked a bit, but never sang a single note. Ron is one of the best banjo players I have ever seen/heard. Bela Fleck is perhaps considered the best, and we’ve seen him, and perhaps he’s better, but Ron is close. We’ve also seen Ricky Skagg’s banjo player, and he won banjo player of the year six times.

Adam Steffey played the mandolin, brilliantly. He was also incredibly funny, reminding both Lois and me of Bill Engvall. He only sang on one song (lead!). He was great, with a very deep voice, but perfectly pitched. It was surprising to me (after hearing him) that he didn’t participate more in the vocals. Adam is one of the greatest mandolin players I’ve ever heard/seen. He is so clean it’s amazing. He’s fast too.

Unlike the Ron Stewart vs Bela Fleck comparison above though, I think that Chris Thile is even more incredible than Adam. That’s not to take anything away from Adam. It’s like comparing Tiger Woods to Phil Mickelson. Phil’s no slouch, and neither is Adam. 🙂

Justin Moses played the fiddle (mostly), but also played the banjo and the dobro. He was masterful on all three, but in particular, was amazing on the fiddle. He sang harmony all night with Dan and Barry, and hit a lot of high notes perfectly.

Steffey, Bales and TyminskiRon Stewart and Justin Moses

The five of them are all amazing talents individually, who blend together to form a perfect bluegrass band. I should mention that Dan sang his heart out all night. He is also an extraordinary guitarist, but last night, he gave 99% of the solos to the rest of the band, and only played lead guitar in two or three numbers, and those were short licks. He anchored the music with great rhythm guitar all night, along with Barry’s amazing bass playing.

As amazing as Union Station are (and they are truly amazing), many of Alison Krauss’ songs are very slow, and sometimes quiet. Talented musicians can shine on those numbers as well, but more up-tempo numbers give them more opportunity to show their wares.

Last night, there wasn’t a slow song in the bunch. Every single song had a driving beat (with no drum in sight!), with energy that had every person tapping their feet or swaying their heads, that had them sweating their little hearts out on stage. It was simply fabulous.

The crowd erupted into a standing ovation at the end of the show, and they played one song for an encore without leaving the stage in between.

I went up to one of the staff after the show and asked what the seating capacity was. 500, so I was correct on my estimation of the range. 🙂

After the show, Lois bought two DVDs (one by Ron Stewart and the other by Adam Steffey), and three CDs. None of these merch items are cheap, but it’s one of the most direct ways to support the artists, so we try to do it! Lois then stood in line (she was roughly 15th in a line that ended up getting very long!) and got all five of our goodies signed by the respective artist. Of course, since she’s so unselfish, she had each of them sign it To Hadar. Awwwwww, she’s so sweet. 🙂

Signature Party at Birchmere Theater

We had a fantastic time. We would go see the Dan Tyminski band or any of the individual members again in a heartbeat. We will definitely go again to the Birchmere. It won’t be hard to find a reason to go there, since they have top act after top act. For example, one week ago, David Bromberg and the Angel Band played there. Al Jarreau was there on Feb 12th (two days before we saw him in NYC). Acoustic Alchemy was there in early February (one of my all-time favorite groups) but we were in NY and couldn’t make that show.

Bromberg and Angel Band at Paramount Theater

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This past Saturday night, we went to see David Bromberg and Angel Band (David’s wife’s group) perform at the Paramount Theater in Peekskill, NY. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that David Bromberg is one of my all-time favorite live performers.

In September 2006, I saw him again at BB King in NYC for the first time in over 20 years. That night, we accidentally discovered Angel Band. We had never heard of them, and would have sat through any opening band to hear Bromberg. What a treat it turned out to be that Angel Band was not only his wife’s group, but that David and his band played all of the instruments in support of these three amazing female vocalists.

Ironically, another of my favorite groups (Jazz this time though), Spyro Gyra was playing the same night, just three miles from our house at Tarrytown Music Hall. I didn’t find out about the Spyro Gyra concert until after I had the tickets for the Bromberg concert, so it was too late. Given that we saw Bromberg twice in the past 14 months, I would have gone to see Spyro Gyra had I known about both at the same time.

The Paramount is a gorgeous old theater with very comfortable seats. We were in the ninth row, center orchestra, so we had excellent seats.

We own the one CD that Angel Band has out now, Beautiful Noise, and we like it a lot. They are releasing a new CD early next year, so we were expecting to hear some new material. Sure enough, at least 2/3’s of the show was different than the one we saw at BB King, which was a real treat. They sing so beautifully and powerfully, and the David Bromberg band would enhance any singer’s performance.

The first few songs that they played were awesome. While they took a while to get Nancy Josephson’s (David’s wife) microphone level correct, she was in particularly good voice, and was truly belting out her leads, amazingly. The other two women, Jen Schonwald and Kathleen Weber (their bios are here), are both wonderful as well!

The selection of songs they played in the middle had less oomph (to me), and while I wasn’t bored (at all), I wasn’t as moved or mesmerized either. They finished on a high note though. When they walked off the stage, Lois commented that she couldn’t believe that they didn’t play the song One Voice.

The first time we ever heard that song was Angel Band singing it at BB King in September 2006, and we have listened to it on the Beautiful Noise CD many times. We recently found out that the song was written by one of my new favorite bands, The Wailin’ Jennys, whom I’ve written about twice now, here and here.

Just as Lois was lamenting not hearing it, they came out for an encore, and lo and behold, played One Voice. It was great, but, not as good as the version on the CD, or the one we heard live that first time. I’m not complaining, just ‘splaining. Great, but not awesome.

The one low point in their performance, for me, was the introduction (in the form of a speech) of a new song written by Nancy Josephson. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me, and caused me to write a separate blog entry complaining about it. I didn’t want to conflate the great music, with my feelings about the speech, so I separated the two. If you care to hear me rant about my feelings about performers lecturing their audience on politics, feel free to read it here.

After a 15 minute break, the David Bromberg Quartet took the stage. As much as the audience loved Angel Band (us included), it was as obvious at the Paramount as it was a year earlier at BB King, that the overwhelming majority of the crowd came out to see David do his thing. The one real surprise was that they switched bass players between sets (I don’t recall that happening at BB King, though I might just not remember it correctly).

David has a very large body of work to choose from, so you never really know what you’re going to hear when you see him live. At the show, he even said that he doesn’t typically have a set playlist for a given concert, but rather lets the band know in between songs what has tickled his fancy to play next. That’s very cool and likely pretty unusual.

Unfortunately (only for me!), his selection on Saturday bordered on the slightly more boring side to me. He played a few of his very famous songs, and they truly wailed on some of the songs that wouldn’t have been anywhere near as exciting on a CD, but, ultimately, I wasn’t blown away by Bromberg himself.

In fact, while he’s nowhere near over the hill, his fingers don’t quite listen to his mind like they used to. In this post about Kathy Mattea, I wrote about Bill Cooley, and the fact that he was likely the best acoustic guitarist I had ever heard. Right before I made that pronouncement, I described what a genius I thought Bromberg is with a guitar. He still is, just not as consistently perfect as he used to be. He misses notes, or perhaps more accurate, simply doesn’t execute what you can tell he was aiming for. That said, on occasion, he thrills like he used to, and it’s sheer bliss.

Still, Bromberg is one of the most fun (as in entertaining) performers you can imagine. When he plays the guitar, he produces facial expressions (and body contortions) aimed to mimic the style and emotion of what he’s playing on the guitar. It’s awesome. The crowd totally eats it up. It gives his guitar playing a sense of story telling that matches the lyrics of whatever song he’s playing. In other words, even though there are no words, you hear the words as he plays each individual lead.

One last thing about Bromberg’s guitar playing: it’s distinctive. In other words, he’s one of the rare guitarists where you can close your eyes, hear him play, and say “That’s Bromberg”. A few others are Jerry Garcia, Santana, Clapton, etc. They are all playing the same basic instrument, and yet, across hundreds of songs, you can still say instantly which one of them it is.

Playing along with David are the top three people listed on this page, Jeff Wisor, Butch Amiot and Bobby Tangrea. Lois is crazy about Bobby Tangrea as a musician (as am I), and we both love Jeff Wisor as well. Wisor is an amazing fiddler (who also plays the mandolin in a few songs), and Tangrea is an exceptional mandolin and guitar player, who plays the fiddle really well on a few songs as well.

Tangrea is a world-class mandolin player, but he is not nearly as good as Chris Thile (who many people believe is the best in the world), or even Ricky Skaggs (in my opinion), but take nothing away from him, you’ll love every minute if you get to see him. His guitar playing is a little better (to my tastes), but in Saturday’s selection of songs, he spent the vast majority of his time on the mandolin.

The highlight (to both Lois and me) of the Bromberg set was the instrumental number Yankee’s Revenge (from the CD Midnight on the Water). It’s a great song on the CD, but live, man, they just nailed it. In particular, Jeff Wisor was so brilliant on the fiddle and Bromberg made him (and Bobby Tangrea on the mandolin) take double-long solos. Yes, they were that good. The only thing missing was they didn’t use a picolo (or some sort of flute) live, which is done really well on the CD version.

Anyway, they came out for two (or three?) encores, with Angel Band as well, though Angel Band just sang very soft background, and was almost superfluous during the encores.

All-in-all, we had a great time. That said, while I’d see him/them again, I can tell already that I won’t be as anxious to catch him in the future as I was these past three times. That’s partly because of the tiresomeness of the political speeches, partly because his selection of songs can be a little too varied, and because as great as he still can be, he’s not as flawless as he used to be.

So, here comes the obligatory Girlyman mention. To try and pretend that it’s even slightly in context, I’ll simply say that I (as of this moment in time) can’t imagine not being excited to catch Girlyman in a live show! 🙂 I used to feel that way about Bromberg…

In fact, it occurs to me what the problem was (for me only!) with this performance at the Paramount, vs the Girlyman performance at both Highline Ballroom and Joe’s Pub:

At both Girlyman concerts (as with past Bromberg shows), I was so totally immersed in the music, that it was truly a zen-like experience. In Saturday’s show, I was aware of my surroundings, the people around me, etc. It was a great concert, but it wasn’t a magical, mystical journey like a Girlyman show is.

Rediscovering Live Music

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Sorry folks, this is likely gonna be another long one. It’s 5:30pm on a Sunday, and I’m relaxing in the hotel down near Zope, and this is what I feel like doing at the moment…

From my mid-teens until my early twenties, I was a fanatic for going to live concerts. I went to a variety of shows, but by far it was mostly rock or folk. Among my favorites back then were Dylan, David Bromberg, The Greatful Dead, The Allman Brothers, Santana, etc.

The greatest concert I ever attended was a 12 hour affair. My friends and I drove from NYC to Washington, D.C. for a concert at RFK Stadium. I was 16, and only had a learner’s permit (this will become important later in the story). 😉 At noon, the warm-up group came on, The New Riders of the Purple Sage. They played for 2 hours, and were excellent. At 2pm, The Greatful Dead came on, and played for 5 hours. At 7pm, The Allman Brothers Band came on, and played for another 5 hours.

Both the Dead and the Allman Brothers were awesome. Hard to pick between them that day, but perhaps (just perhaps), the Brothers outdid them a bit. Of course, since they got to go last, it could simply have been that their stuff was still ringing in our ears all the way home. 🙂

Anyway, when we left (hitting the parking lot at 12:30am), the driver (the only female in our group) was too tired to drive at all. So were the other two. I felt fine, but wasn’t legally allowed to drive at night, without an adult, and oh yeah, I had never driven on a highway either! 😉

Suffice it to say, it was quite an experience for me, and a drive that normally takes 4+ hours took a little more than 3.

I can still remember my last live concert (of that era) like it was yesterday. I got two tickets to see David Bromberg at Town Hall. First row in the Balcony. I was incredibly excited. I had seen Bromberg live 5 times before, and each one was better than the one before. He’s a magical live performer who really connects with the audience.

Much to my surprise (and chagrin), the audience was mostly teeny boppers. I was all of (perhaps) 23, so I was truly mature… It seemed to me that I was the only person in the audience who had ever heard of Bromberg, and came to actually see him specifically. The rest seemed to be out for the evening, hanging with their friends. They never stopped talking (loudly) even for a second. At least twice, Bromberg stopped playing in the middle of a song (I had never seen something like that ever before) and practically begged the audience to be quiet. They didn’t comply… 🙁

I decided that night to stop going to see live music…

That pretty much held true until nearly 15 years later. The Greatful Dead were playing Madison Square Garden, and I was able to get two tickets in the fifth row center as part of a charity thing. I wanted to do it both because I was crazy about the Dead, and because I wanted to share this kind of experience with Lois, who had never seen a band like the Dead play live.

We were grossly disappointed. Everyone stood the entire evening, and Lois could barely see the stage even standing on her seat (and we were 5 rows back!). The selection of music was a little strange as well, and they played the shortest concert I’ve ever seen them do, in the 5 times I’ve seen them live. Oh well, my admonition not to go to live concerts seemed safely back on…

I think the only exception to that rule was an evening at a Jazz Club in NYC (Birdland) to see Stanley Jordan. If you don’t know him, he plays an amazing style of guitar whereby he taps on the strings on the frets, rather than ever picking or strumming. He creates quite unique sounds, and is a fantastic performer. I enjoyed the evening. That night was more about an evening out with friends, including dinner, rather than the concert being a real destination.

Then it all changed (albeit a little more slowly to begin with) 😉

On January 17th, 2003, our godson (who was a junior at Duke at the time) came for a long weekend with some of his friends from school. Lois is a master planner and goes out of her way to try and pack as many interesting things to do whenever people come to visit. Our godson played the trumpet in the Duke marching band so Lois looked around to see if any famous trumpet players were in town. Indeed, Arturo Sandoval was playing at the Blue Note.

I think there were 7 of us there for the show, and we had dinner beforehand, and totally enjoyed the show. As much as I love jazz (and I really do!), Arturo’s style isn’t necessarily my favorite, but seeing him perform live was still a wonderful experience. In December 2003, our godson returned with a nearly identical set of friends for an encore (I think there was one swap in the group). We went back to the Blue Note, and saw Jane Monheit. Wow, can this lady sing. I got in trouble on this trip because we got to the club a little later than usual, and had the worst seats in the house (which aren’t that bad!), but Lois still hasn’t forgiven me, over three years later…

From that point on, we went occasionally to the Blue Note, either by ourselves, or when someone was visiting from out of town, and once even went with local friends (if you can believe that). 🙂 Among the people we saw there (I can’t remember them all) were Bob James (writer of the theme song from the TV show Taxi), Maynard Ferguson (twice, unfortunately now deceased), Acoustic Alchemy (probably my favorite jazz group!), Chuck Mangione (was my favorite for a long time, and is still amazing live) and probably another one or two.

This was over a period of three years, which is why I said above that it built slowly at first. Last September, it hit a fevered pitch, as we broadened our venues beyond the Blue Note. I started actively searching for tour dates for some of my favorite groups, and immediately found out that David Bromberg was playing at BB King Blues Club. We had never been there. The show was awesome, and included an hour of a group called Angel Band (which is three women who sing harmonies like angels, including David’s wife Nancy Josephson).

Since then, we’ve been to BB King’s many times. We’ve seen a wide variety of shows there, including the following groups: Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby (who tour and record together now, which we didn’t know in advance. They were awesome.), Shawn Colvin, Paul Thorn (he opened for Ricky and Bruce, and was a delightful surprise), Quicksilver Messenger Service (they were boring), Jefferson Starship (used to be a favorite, but they’re over the hill, were awful, and we left early!), The Commitments (from the movie of the same name), Yama Bandit (unannounced opening group for The Commitments), Sunday Gospel Brunch (tons of fun!), perhaps one or two others…

We also discovered a fantastic small club in NYC called Joe’s Pub. The first group we saw there is one of my recent favorites, The Duhks. Then we saw Master McCarthy and Fools for April with our godchildren. Finally, we saw David Bromberg solo there. A great treat!

We saw Dave Koz at the Beacon Theater on Valentine’s Day. It was an amazing show, even though the acoustics were horrible! He had two special guests that played most of the evening with him and his band. David Benoit and Jonathan Butler. David Benoit is one of the great jazz pianists. Lois is now one of his biggest fans. I had never heard of Jonathan Butler before. He’s a South African singer and guitarist. He blew me away. Anita Baker was supposed to be a special guest, but she got snowed in and couldn’t make it. Koz got his buddy Be Be Winans to step in at the last minute. Be Be sings “The Dance” on the Koz album of the same name, and is one of our favorites. It was a special treat to see him sing that song live!

Last week we saw Chris Thile and his new band The Tensions Mountain Boys at Zankel Hall, which is part of Carnegie Hall. Chris is considered by some to be the world’s greatest mandolin player. We used to think his last name was pronounced “teal”, but it turns out it’s “theely”, who knew. After recording a few albums on his own, he was the lead person in Nickel Creek (one of my favorite groups), before forming this group. Zankel Hall is under ground at Carnegie Hall, and perhaps the best acoustical venue we’ve ever been in.

That pretty much catches you up on what we’ve done. We have two more shows coming up in the next month. On April 3rd, we were supposed to see The Allman Brothers Band together at the Beacon Theater. Two weeks ago, we were having dinner with two of our favorite people, and we realized that the guy was a big Allman Brothers fan. Lois isn’t (simply because she hasn’t listened to them much, not because she actively dislikes them), and we offered up her ticket to him. Instead, Lois and his wife are now scheduled to see Abigal Washburn and Bethany Yarrow + Rufus Cappadocia at Joe’s Pub. We found out about Abigail Washburn when we were seeing Yama Bandit at BB King, and the person next to us (who was friends with the Yama Bandit band) told us how great Abigail is.

Finally, friends of ours who got dizzy when we recounted the above to them over sushi, surprised us a few weeks back and told us that they bought four tickets to see Harry Connick Jr. at Radio City Music Hall on April 21st (inspired by us). We’re looking forward to that show as well. 🙂

Whew! Done at 8:10pm…