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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.

The Duhks at Joe’s Pub

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We first discovered Joe’s Pub because of The Duhks. The Duhks were an automated recommendation for me from Amazon.com, based on the fact that I had purchased Nickel Creek CDs from them. I listened, I liked, a lot.

After that, I bought both Duhks CDs, and checked where they were touring. I noticed they were coming to NYC to Joe’s Pub. We had never heard of Joe’s, but went to see them there. We loved the show, thoroughly, and bought their third CD at the show. That was roughly two years ago. We’ve been to Joe’s dozens of times since, and it’s our favorite place to see live music.

Shortly after we saw them (measured in months) Jessee Havey (their lead singer) left the band. She was replaced by Sarah Dugas, announced as an interim selection, until the band made a longer-term choice. Sarah ended up staying for the long term, and the percussionist, Scott Senior was replaced by Sarah’s brother, Christian Dugas, a drummer with a complete drum set.

We knew that they released a new CD a month ago, but we decided to buy it at the show to more directly support the band.

We knew we loved their music (Lois had a handful of songs she played over-and-over in the car, and I like a broader selection of their stuff from all three CDs), and we wanted to share that experience with others, so we bought four tickets to the show. That’s often a risk, because while music is universal, each person’s taste is hardly universal.

Since Joe’s serves really good food, we figured that it would at least be a nice social outing. Sparing you the crazy details of how we ended up with our specific guests, two of our married male friends came, with each of their wives having previous commitments.

The tickets had the show starting at 7:30pm, but the outside sign said 7pm. It turned out that they had a special guest star opening the show for them at 7pm, but I’ll cover him later. He ran over (knowingly), and after resetting the stage, The Duhks came on at 7:45pm.

Normally, Joe’s Pub gets the acoustics down pat. On occasion (unfortunately, not infrequently enough, as I’ve now written about this a few times), they screw it up, pretty badly at times. Last night was one of those times, but The Duhks have changed in a number of ways, and that change didn’t help out with the poor sound management.

The first obvious change was from a percussionist (Scott Senior), to a full drum kit (Christian Dugas). Christian is a fantastic drummer, from every perspective. Unfortunately, a full drum kit overwhelms the roots sounds and instruments that characterize The Duhks. That means that everyone else in the band needs to amp up more, causing more problems for the sound engineer, etc. When the sound system isn’t perfect, the problems accelerate quickly, to the point of no return.

We had an inkling of what was to come before the show even started. One of the founders of the band, Leonard Podolak was out on the stage helping the opening act pack up, and he was squatting on the stage about 12 inches from Lois. Lois told him how much we love them, and asked whether they were going to play her favorite songs (she mentioned them by name, she didn’t assume he knew which ones were our favorites). 😉

Leonard told her that they don’t play those songs any longer, now that Sarah is in the band. Given that Sarah’s voice is quite similar (earthy, husky, full-bodied, etc.) to Jessee, neither of us understood the comment. After the fact, I worried that perhaps this was another Wailin’ Jennys moment, where they no longer perform live any songs written by Annabelle Chvostek. Who knows?

In any event, Leonard didn’t lie. They mostly played songs from the new CD (we bought a copy before the show started, and I’ve listened to it today) plus a few from their old albums (none of our favorites), plus a few new covers.

The show was awful, on a number of levels. First, the sound was horrible. The guitarist, Jordan McConnell is normally amazing. He’s probably got the fastest right hand I’ve ever seen, and he plays a mixture of the best rhythm guitar, with fantastic leads. Last night, the only thing you could hear out of his guitar was pure bass. It almost sounded like pure feedback. No strumming or leads. It was a crushing disappointment.

Partially, it was due to our placement right up against the stage, where the drum was blaring in our ears. That doesn’t explain it entirely though. The fiddle player, Tania Elizabeth is brilliant. She’s in my top five favorite fiddle players, and we’ve seen a ton of great fiddle players in the past two years. She also sings harmony on a number of songs (really well).

Last night, it was hit or miss whether you could make out the fiddle. On some numbers, clear as a bell (and Tania hasn’t lost a step), on others, muddled sound or no sound. Quite a few times Tania had to gesture desperately up at the sound board, pointing at her fiddle and raising her thumb up, indicating that she needed more volume.

Leonard Podolak played the banjo extremely well, and ironically, you could make out most of the notes he played all night long. Still, they were in the distant background, but at least audible. One of our guests noted after the show that it was a very weird feeling to be sitting two feet from the banjo, but only hearing the banjo sound coming from the far corner of the stage. It was disorienting. I agree.

Sarah had her voice on, but also had to complain to the sound person that her mic was not reliable. She conjectured that the cable was loose, and was making the mic cut in and out. On one song that Leonard sang lead on, he had to switch positions on stage with Sarah, because he too felt that his mic was garbling his sound. Ugh…

So, you’d think that all of the problems last night could be summed up as sound related, either with physical equipment problems, a poor sound engineer, or a mixture of the two. Alas, that wouldn’t be correct, at least not for our taste.

Basically, this band bears little resemblance to The Duhks that we knew and loved. Sure, they are absolutely exceptional musicians (not that you could hear Jordan to be sure, but trust me, he’s spectacular!). Somehow, adding Sarah and Christian Dugas has changed the soul of this band.

I’m sure that they will find many new fans, but they will also leave some old ones behind, including us. Basically, they want to be more of a Rock band, in Roots clothing. That’s fine, but it’s not our style. They’re too loud (regardless of the sound problems) for that particular mix of instruments, as well as for our taste. To give a concrete example, they closed with a rock cover, including mixing in some Whole Lotta Love there. Sorry folks, this is the wrong configuration of instruments and musicians to pull that off.

Sarah has the pipes to sing that stuff, and clearly she’s pulling the band to play that, but the fit is so bad as to be laughable. It’s a true shame.

All that said, I listened to the entire CD today, and it’s not bad. Clearly, it’s mixed way more professionally than last night’s show was, and I was in control of the volume, so I could listen at pleasant levels. I’m not sorry that we bought the CD, but I doubt Lois will ever listen to it, she was so turned off by the performance.

On to the opening act. Leonard Podolak went to high school with Luke Doucet. Luke is an incredible Rock guitarist. He was accompanied by his wife, Melissa McLelland (singing and playing rhythm electric guitar), Catherine Popper (playing electric bass) and Rob Heath on the drums (Luke had never played with Rob before).

We didn’t come prepared to hear loud Rock music, thinking that The Duhks would have a more similar sound for their opening group. Of course, we didn’t know that The Duhks were morphing more toward this sound, nor that they were promoting a friend more than trying to match the crowd’s taste in music.

That said, Luke is incredibly talented. His amlifier was three feet away from us, so we had no trouble hearing his fantastic leads. In fact, two people in our party put in ear plugs when he started playing, that’s how little trouble we had hearing him. That said, the microphones for his voice and Melissa’s, were too soft in comparison. I could make out most of the words, but partially because I could see his lips move.

He’s a good songwriter as well, and I enjoyed the lyrics that I was able to make out. I liked their harmonies as well, though they were definitely overshadowed if not drowned out.

Luke said that he was given 25 minutes to complete his set. He took 35. That was 10 minutes less for the headliner, his friends, so who knows how they worked that out…

Last night was the first time that I left Joe’s Pub with a ringing in my ears, and a generally unpleasant feeling due to the loudness and poor sound quality. 🙁

Anyway, even though we didn’t get to talk about it until after the show, I knew that Lois was cringing during most of The Duhks performance (as was I) over the fact that we picked this show to bring our friends to (we see most concerts alone). We had a lovely time with them, and enjoyed an excellent meal and drinks before the show, and we always love every opportunity to see them, but still, it would have been nicer if the music was special too.

Still, we have a lot to thank The Duhks for. If not for The Duhks, we might never have discovered Joe’s Pub in the first place. If we had never discovered Joe’s Pub, we would definitely never have discovered our favorite band, Girlyman. Girlyman is a band that we’ve never seen alone. In the four times that we’ve seen them so far, we took two people three times, and three people once.

We’re about to see them three times in close proximity. We’re bringing 12 people to one show, 14 to another the next night, and two weeks later four people (all of the above includes us in the count, with no other duplicates among the three shows!). We aren’t worried in the least that anyone we bring to a Girlyman show will be disappointed. We know we won’t be either.

Finally, some positive news from last night. When we go to Joe’s, 70% of the time we take a bus, 30% a cab. Last night, the second we got to the corner, we saw the bus waiting at a red light. We didn’t have to run, but we had to hustle a bit. When we boarded the bus, I noticed that there was a piece of paper sticking out of the slot where I would have inserted my MetroCard. Clearly, the box was broken, and the ride was about to be free, even though the driver never waved anyone on, they all just figured it out.

It’s not the savings of the $4 (though I’m not complaining about that), it’s actually more the fact that I deferred having to buy a new MetroCard by two rides. It also sped the ride up a bit, because no one had to fumble to get the MetroCard into the reader in the correct orientation.

The biggest joy about it was watching everyone’s expression as they realized they didn’t have to pay (I include myself as well!). There was an uncontrollable smile that overtook each and every person’s face. I kid you not. They felt that they were getting away with something. Something that they knew they secretly deserved to get away with.

It’s not possible to describe how different an experience it is to ride on a NYC bus, with 100 other people, and see most of them smiling at least at one point during the ride. I’m not sure it’s ever happened before, and it may never happen again. 🙂

Coincidence or Serendipity?

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You be the judge. 😉

As many of you know, Joe’s Pub is one of our favorite places to see a concert. We’re going again later this week, but that in itself is a good enough story to merit its own blog after the show. None of you may recall how we came to discover Joe’s Pub in the first place.

In this incredibly long post I mention seeing a number of acts at Joe’s Pub. The Duhks were the first, and I was specifically searching for any places that they were playing, which is how we first heard about Joe’s. (As an aside, pointing toward the serendipity angle here, The Duhks was a recommendation by Amazon.com for me based on the fact that I had purchased Nickel Creek CDs from them in the past, and they turned out to be a wonderful discovery!)

During that original The Duhks concert, they discussed on stage that they were really good friends with a group called The Mammals, and that they were influenced by them. That same week, The New York Times wrote an article about this genre, and included both The Duhks and The Mammals in the article, with glowing reviews of both.

Ever since then, I’ve wanted to see The Mammals live, but the one time they were scheduled to be in NY, we were at Zope, and were not able to rearrange our schedule. The person The Duhks most talked about was Ruth Unger (who’s father Jay Unger was/is also a musician). Another member of The Mammals is Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Pete Seeger’s grandson!

In another recent post, I talked about how wonderful The Tarrytown Music Hall is. Two months ago, I noticed that they had The Mammals scheduled for last night. We were already going to be in NY, so this was perfect. I snapped up two very good orchestra seats, and was really looking forward to the show.

We got home on the 11th (concert was scheduled for the 19th), and on the 12th, I got an email informing me that the concert was cancelled due to a scheduling conflict. This was definitely a big disappointment for me…

Switching gears, which will momentarily appear to be a complete non-sequitur…

In August 1987, Lois was working at Citibank. Her boss sent her to a conference in Vail, CO. As a bonus for a particularly grueling stretch of work that Lois successfully completed, he offered to pay for my airfare so that I could tag along. The conference was from 8am-noon, Monday-Friday that week, so Lois was free every afternoon and evening. I spent the mornings reading John Barth’s The Tidewater Tales. Barth is still one of my all-time favorite novelists, and The Tidewater Tales is simply an awesome book. The first 80 pages are torture to get through, even for a die-hard Barth fan, but the torture is worth it, because the rest of the book is simply amazing. In the end, he wraps it up nicely, and the first 80 pages finally make sense…

In the afternoons, Lois and I did things we rarely even think of doing, let alone actually do. One day, we rented a canoe and paddled around a gorgeous mountain lake. Another day we took a gondola (cable car) up to one of the higher mountains. On another day, we went horse-back riding. Now comes the connection with this adventure, and The Mammals disappointment.

The minute Lois got up on the horse (we were in a large group of tourists), she started to cry. Yes, literally, cry. A woman on a nearby horse had her 3-year-old daughter with her on the same saddle. When Lois started to cry, the baby started to cry too (she was fine until Lois started crying). The woman looked over at Lois and loudly said: “Hey New York, stop crying or my child will refuse to stay on the horse!”

Lois was startled into stopping, and sure enough, the baby stopped crying as well. The rest of the ride was uneventful. Afterwards, we chatted and laughed with the woman. We agreed to meet later that night for dinner. We had a lovely meal with her and her husband (who was not there for the horse incident) and were very glad to make two new (and very interesting) friends.

Not surprisingly, we never saw them again (they lived in Colorado Springs at the time). Lois stayed in touch by phone for a while with the woman, but eventually, that connection faded as well. Last year, Lois did some searches on Google and found the husband’s name as a Department Chairman at Notre Dame. It would be too coincidental for this not to be the right person, so she wrote to him, and indeed, we found them again.

Two hours after receiving the email saying that The Mammals concert was canceled, Lois got an email from the woman, saying that they were going to be in NYC this weekend, for her big birthday (it has a 0 at the end, but still only a single digit at the front) 😉

They are seeing Wicked this afternoon (another amazing coincidence?!?), but were free on Friday night for dinner. Of course, if The Mammals weren’t canceled, we would have missed them. We got together for a great meal and great conversation at our favorite Mexican restaurant, El Rio Grande, and we hope to see them for brunch again tomorrow morning, before they leave town again.

It turns out that he’s on leave this year from Notre Dame, on a research fellowship at Princeton, so we will likely get to see them a few more times before they head back to Indiana.

Obviously, I consider this incredibly serendipitous, but some of you might think it’s mere coincidence