Thursday, November 12, 2009

Live Review - 11/12/2009 Infamous Stringdusters at Johnny D's

Sarah Jarosz - the precocious virtuoso played a short, tight set, showcasing her powerful voice and skilled playing. The whole set was solo, but her deft picking on banjo and guitar provided both rhythm behind her voice and intricate solos between verses. You can count me among those who are looking forward to seeing what the future holds for her.

The Infamous Stringdusters - I was struck by a thought partway through the sextet's set - why? Why does a group of six musicians, all relative young (late twenties, early thirties) and extremely talented, decide to get on the road and play 150 nights a year, driving all day in vans and sleeping in hotels to play small venues for what can't possibly be a lot of money?

I have so many questions about them. There are six musicians (one more than typical in a bluegrass act) and a whopping five them (mandolist Jesse Cobb, guitarist Andy Falco, fiddle Jeremy Garrett, dobro player Andy Hall, banjo player Chris Pandolfi) are soloists - all but bass player Travis Book, and he even takes the compulsory once-per-night bass solo. Book, Garrett, and Hall all sing. How do they manage all the egos? How can six musicians with such skills all decide to just coexist? How do they avoid stepping on each others' toes? And how do they end up making music this good?

I would love to follow them around, to see what the give and take is, to see who argues with whom and how they resolve things. I'd love to get a sense of what makes them tick, whether some of them feel unappreciated, who the leaders are or whether it's a true democracy. I'd love to see how traveling affects their personal lives, whether their wives and girlfriends travel with them and how that dynamic stresses the unit. I feel like I would get an understanding about something - the human dynamic, the core of music, what makes a band successful, what drives artists and musicians.

Because something is driving these guys. How else could they play so amazingly well, feverish solo after feverish solo, great arrangements, strong vocals and harmonies? At the end of the day, what are a bunch of super-talented young guns doing striving continuously to be the best bluegrass band in the world? And let's be clear - that's a realistic possibility for the 'Dusters. But no matter how amazing their music is, how much reach will their art have? How much fame and fortune will come to them? How much love and fandom will they inspire?

I thought about all these things, but it was really pretty immaterial. The Infamous Stringdusters have become masters of straddling the line between jam band and bluegrass, eschewing the three-minute compositions of Bill Monroe for extended solos. Background playing soared above simple rhythm and occasional banjo or fiddle fills to create a real sense of tension and building in songs. Oftentimes it would seem like we'd lose the melody in a swirl of notes, only to come back to it tidily, like a mystery movie wrapping up its loose ends. Of particular note were the extended version of Old And In the Way's classic "Midnight Moonlight," which they introduced as "classic jamgrass" and then did everything possibly to honor that moniker, and encore "Fork In the Road," which the group played completely unplugged in true bluegrass pickin' style.

I don't know why they do it or how long it will last. I'm not sure how it works or why it works. But I'm grateful I saw them at Johnny D's, perfect. And maybe next time, they'll be even better.

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