Circus No. 9 rocks downtown Roanoke

Last Friday the young jamgrass quartet, Circus No. 9, spun into Roanoke, VA for a show at a small downtown venue. Since they had kindly invited me out to see them, I took them up on the offer, and thoroughly enjoyed roughly two hours of energetic and occasionally unorthodox bluegrass-derived music.

What they performed wouldn’t have satisfied everyone’s definition of bluegrass, and some of it was so far beyond that it wouldn’t even merit an argument, but it was all played on banjo, guitar, mandolin, and upright bass by extremely talent young musicians with something to prove. Only a handful of bands in this nebulous sub-genre of the bluegrass world display this level of musicianship and virtuosity, and it stood out immediately.

The group is largely based around 19 year old banjo wunderkind Matthew Davis, who is quite literally a marvel. Growing up outside the bluegrass mainstream in Nebraska, young Mr. Davis has developed a technique that rivals top banjo pickers in any style – and he’s just getting started. When they played bluegrass numbers like Doing My Time, he had all the Scruggs/Crowe licks right where they belonged, but when things took a turn into jamville, he was ready with the sort of single string improvisation that has been the hallmark of players like Béla Fleck or Noam Pikelny. 

Matthew is also the primary vocalist in the group, and while I didn’t always find his singing effective on their album from last year, in a live setting he belted them out like a champ.

Their set consisted primarily of material from their Modernus album, but the music came across as far more polished and authoritative than on the recording. Newest member Ben Garnett has only recently joined the band full time, and it has solidified their rhythm section tremendously, already strong with the expert bass work of Vince Iligan. Mandolinist Thomas Cassell provided all the percussive rhythm the band needed.

Particular standouts were Cool It Son, Lost Mule In Texas, and Joe Hill, which involved a very interesting key change for the jam segment, and a return back to the original to finish it out. Everything they did was entertaining, captivating at times, and played in a spirit of good fun.

The audience was sparse, but it filled this small room where I had also seen Punch Brothers and The Infamous Stringdusters before they made it to the top of the heap.

Most of the pieces they played went jammy after a couple of verses, and the three soloists have the chops to keep that interesting, not always true with modern pickers that don’t come up through the convention/competition circuit.

Here’s a video of Cool It Son from about 10 months ago, before Garnett was a regular bandmate. It has a delightful blues/funk beat, and a clever lyric that expresses how most of us feel in the hot summer son.

All four used either mounted pickups or microphones on their instruments, with no microphones except for vocals, and each was plugged in to a pedal board for subtle effects and volume boost for solos. That can often be distracting on stage when players look down to tap their pedals as often as is necessary in bluegrass, but these four managed it imperceptibly. Garnett adjusted his volume with a volume control on his guitar, and unless you were looking for it, I suspect few would notice at all.

Most importantly, the audio fidelity of the instrument-mounted devices was completely transparent, owing both to quality of the equipment used, the band’s expertise in employing it, and the sound system installed at The Spot on Kirk in Roanoke. Kudos all.

It was great fun seeing modern grasslike music being played by such talented young people. Circus No. 9 has embraced just about everything the genre has created to date – Flatt & Scruggs, New Grass Revival, and Bad Livers influences could all be heard. But these guys are writing their own music, and going about it in their own way.

And please don’t bother pointing out that it’s not “bluegrass.” Our world is big enough for Del McCoury and Circus No. 9 to coexist.

Don’t miss Circus No. 9 if they come your way, and watch out for this bunch – they have something to say.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.