Bluegrass is an interesting musical genre. It is loved far and wide by people in rural communities, especially in the south, who can readily associate with much of the lyrical content. Yet it is also loved around the world from, Japan to Sweden and back again. There is a very strong sense of tradition and rootedness, yet a willingness to explore and take chances.
This past Sunday evening I was witness to one of those explorations. Bluegrass front-man Ricky Skaggs and his award winning band Kentucky Thunder, joined the Boston Pops for a concert at the Boston Symphony Hall. This wasn’t a first. Ricky and crew had performed once before in May of 2003 with the Pops in a performance that was taped for Evening at Pops. Those performances are available on YouTube (one is included later in this post).
This particular performance marked the closing night of the 126th season for the Boston Pops. An appropriate theme had been chosen. The Pops has been asked to perform this fall in Kentucky for a scholarship fundraiser at the Universe of Kentucky, so they’ve put together a show themed around one of the three things you think of when you think of Kentucky, horses (The other two are bluegrass and bourbon according to conductor Keith Lockhart).
The first half of the evening’s concert was the Pops performing pieces from this horse themed show, including the theme song from The Magnificent Seven, one of my favorite movies. The Pops demonstrated why they enjoy such prestige. Their performance was marked by excellent musicianship and top notch dynamics. In fact, I would suggest every bluegrass band catch a performance by a high quality symphony and study the precision of their dynamics. Also study the way in which each member plays her role appropriately without grandstanding. The goal is the overall sound of the ensemble, not hot licks. Very instructive.
After a brief intermission, Lockhart introduced to the stage Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. It wasn’t strictly the bluegrass band we know and love. Included was a full drum kit, along with keys and steel guitar. These were included I’m sure because Ricky chose to perform a couple of tunes which were originally country hits, and the thought must have been that the inclusion of these additional instruments would render said tunes more palatable to a larger audience. It was unnecessary, and sadly may have contributed to some sound reinforcement issues that seemed to plague the evening.
The inclusion of these instruments and a plethora of mics on stage, in a room designed for unamplified performance, led to less than desirable acoustics for the evening. Things got a bit muddied and overwhelmed in the sound department. The rhythm guitar was all but lost in the mix, and the solos suffered a fate worse than death. I can only assume that Skaggs did not have his normal sound engineer with him. By the time the engineer realized someone was taking a solo, found their channel, and adjusted the volume, the solo was nearing completion without the audience having heard most of it. This was especially true of the guitar, though the banjo suffered similarly as well. The fiddle and, not surprisingly, Ricky’s mandolin were given better treatment.
One thing stood out above and beyond these issues though. Ricky Skaggs can sing. And boy do I mean how! It’s been a while since I saw his show live and perhaps I had forgotten just what a great vocal performer Skaggs is. His voice is crystal clear, sweet to the ear, expressive, and when needed, powerful.
He began his show with what has become a standard for him, Pig In A Pen. You’ve probably heard it before, but with a symphony accompanying? Check out this video from the 2003 performance with the Boston Pops.
The set list for the show was as follows:
Pig In A Pen
Highway 40 Blues
Give Us Rain
Cat’s In The Cradle
Road To Spencer
On the slower songs, the symphony was a wonderfully pleasant addition to the sound. Even on the faster tunes, it was surprising how well the large sound of an orchestra blended with the bluegrass band while not overpowering it. In all, it was a very enjoyable sound.
The one exception to this was the finally tune, Uncle Pen. On this one, the symphony overplayed their role, attempting to cut the fiddle parts with Andy Leftwich. To my ears, the timing and phrasing was not mastered by the Pops and left the tune sounding very mechanistic and lacking in soul. But hey, 6 out of 7 isn’t a bad batting average!
The audience obviously enjoyed the show, as Skaggs and crew were treated to a standing ovation at the conclusion of Uncle Pen, and returned to perform Crossville and Black Eyed Susie as their encore tunes. The symphony’s involvement was limited on these numbers to performing the “Hey!” exclamations in Black Eyed Susie.
The audience again treated the band to a standing ovation after the encore.
The one glaring omission of this entire show was in the song selection by Skaggs. The Pops themed their entire show around horses, celebrating Kentucky, with special guest Ricky Skaggs, and Skaggs didn’t perform a single song about horses. I had fully anticipated getting to hear a performance of the great bluegrass horse racing song, Molly and Tenbrooks. At least he could have done something like Green Pastures or Rawhide. I wonder if any mention was even made of Molly and Tenbrooks during the work up of the set list, and if so, why it was not included…
A few things we can learn from the show and the audience’s reaction.
First, the audience, I think they call them patrons in the symphony world, enjoyed the music very much. To be sure, there were some in attendance who where there because of the bluegrass, but they were a minority. As I overheard conversations at tables near me, and followed up with people on the subway following the show, the regular patrons of the symphony thoroughly enjoyed the bluegrass sound. It was presented professionally, as something to be regarded with esteem, and it was performed exceptionally. I noticed a few of the violinists craning their necks for a better view during Leftwich’s fiddle solos on the two encore tunes (during which they were not playing themselves).
These people may well purchase a few bluegrass CDs in the coming months, probably Ricky’s, and that’s fine. Thank you Ricky for thinking outside the box and bringing the sounds of mountain harmony, fiddles, and banjos to an audience that may never have gotten outside their own box to experience it. And thank you for doing so in a way we can be proud of as an industry.
The second thing to take away from this show is that bluegrass has a vitality that allows for experimentation like this without any fear of being overwhelmed and becoming something other than what it is. Of course that is an altogether different discussion!
* Photos by Stu Rosner, courtesy of the Boston Pops