The Education of Bryan McDowell

| January 18, 2012 | 1 Comment

Like any good student, Bryan McDowell worked hard on his lessons before Monday’s big test. And like many of the best and brightest, as soon as it was over he lamented that he should have done better.

“I studied hard, but maybe not adequately enough,” he said with a nervous smile a few minutes after leaving the stage in just his second performance with the Claire Lynch Band.

He doesn’t need to worry. Claire won’t be trading him in any time soon. There are bands that have been together 10 years that aren’t as tight as this one was Monday night at an Institute of Musical Traditions show in Rockville, Md. And the band is only going to get better as Bryan settles in and his band mates get comfortable with the 20-year-old wizard.

Bryan replaced Jason Thomas, whose mandolin, fiddle and harmonies were integral parts of the band. Indeed, when Jason decided to spend less time on the road and more time with his family in Florida, I wondered if the band might lose a bit of its magic.

I should have known better. Every time she loses a super talent, Claire finds another one and the band continues to soar.

A few years back, for instance, Missy Raines vacated the bass job. Claire brought in Mark Schatz. He not only plays a mean bass but banjo, too, and adds entertaining dance and hambone routines to the show.

Later, when guitar virtuoso Jim Hurst stepped aside, she found Matt Wingate, who will be IBMA’s guitar player of the year one of these days and doubles on mandolin. Matt has also brought new material to the band. Recent performances have included Sailing to Philadelphia, by rocker Mark Knopfler, and She’s Too Good For Me, a Sting song that benefits from Matt’s bluesy vocal.

So when Jason departed, Claire merely found a guy who won the national fiddle, mandolin and flatpicking guitar championships at Winfield, Kansas – IN ONE YEAR!

As good as he is, learning the material will take a LOT of work. After 33 years in the business – many of them as a prolific writer – Claire’s songbook is vast and varied. Monday’s show included Second Wind, a song she co-wrote so long ago that she joked she has “since had my third wind and my fourth wind.”

She also sprung a song on the band that wasn’t on the set list. During the intermission, a man who introduced himself to Claire was on the verge of tears as he explained how much the song Sweetheart Darlin’ of Mine meant to him. A short time later, she was singing it.

Bryan played them all with fire and flair. There was nothing tentative or timid, at least to the crowd in the sold-out hall. The harmonies were good most of the night, and will get better over time.

In fact, since this was just Bryan’s second public performance with the band, everything is bound to get better. That’s a scary thought. Scary in very good way.

David Morris

David Morris is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, songwriter and upright bass player. He has spent much of his career as a wire service political reporter, including nearly 14 years with The Associated Press and a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and is now a senior editor for Kiplinger Washington Editors.

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