Thursday, November 11, 2010

Live Review - 11/10/2010 Infamous Stringdusters and Trampled by Turtles at The Middle East

I've written about the Infamous Stringdusters more than any band in the history of this blog, most recently here, so I will spare you another several-thousand-word paean to their greatness.

I hadn't seen opener Trampled by Turtles, however, so I wanted to put a few words down about them and their performance. I thought they were terrific. They describe themselves as "thrashgrass," and it's easy to see why - many of their tunes are mile-a-minute blazing, with an old-timey looseness complementing their dexterous playing. Even their slow stuff had a real drive and feeling to it, thanks in no small part to Tim Saxhaug's clever bass lines on the acoustic bass guitar. They were at once very iconoclastic - banjo player Dave Carroll flatpicked the 5-string, which I've never seen before - and traditional, with three-part harmonies between Carroll, Saxhaug, and lead singer / guitarist Dave Simonett.

There are a lot of mostly-bullshit ways to divide bands into two groups - I've thought about having a "rock dichotomies" running column in this blog - and one is between psychedelia and punk in bluegrass. Psychedelia and punk probably aren't the most common words one hears associated with traditional acoustic music, but most great bluegrass bands have quite a bit of one or the other. The Stringdusters are masters of psychedelia in bluegrass - they create note just notes but rich soundscapes with their music, blazing through five parts at once and then dropping down to one fiddle drown, ideas and notes and words bouncing off each other, creating some new ephemeral sculpture out of music. The 'Dusters often say soundman Drew Becker is the seventh Stringduster, and it's easy to see why - he's distilling all this sound into a balanced, cohesive dram.

TBT (as their fans, who were out in surprising numbers last night, call them), are not like that. They are rooted in the punk tradition of bluegrass, which has been there since Bill Monroe and even before. It seems crazy to call a master instrumentalist like Monroe "punk," but the looseness that pervades old-time music was always present there. Monroe would often eschew single note picking for violent strikes of two, three strings at once, and he made the loud, percussive woody thumping of the mandolin not only something accepted but something embraced by all prospective bluegrass mandolinists. He was a gifted technical player, of course, but it wasn't about technique, it was about drive and feel. Trampled By Turtles has a punk urgency, a point driven home by their cover of Boston-area indie punksters The Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" which sounded completely in place with acoustic instruments, with mandolinist Erik Berry miming Frank Black's snaking guitar part and Ryan Young aping Kim Deal's haunting moans so well I had to keep looking over at him to make sure he was still playing the fiddle and not singing.

Both traditions are great and glorious, but is there any overlap? There is, if the Stringdusters' encore is any indication. They closed the show just after midnight, leaving the stage and piling on to the floor with TBT to play, without mics or pickups, The Band's classic "The Weight" and blues standard "Sittin' On Top of the World." It was a fine finale, two modern bands with different sensibilities finding common ground, not only with each other but also between the past and future of American acoustic music.

Trampled by Turtles official site
Infamous Stringdusters official site

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