Sam Bush at The Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, TN (January 11, 2019) – photo by Alisa B. Cherry
Sam Bush is one affable individual. Anyone who has ever met the man in person can attest to that fact. Likewise, a new documentary, Revival: The Sam Bush Story, provides testimony from friends and fellow players about just how amiable and completely down to earth this potent performer truly is.
Still, the best evidence comes through in concert, where Bush beams and bounds across the stage, his mouth agape in a perpetual smile while expressing his joy and enthusiasm as he strums his mandolin, draws a bow across his fiddle or, during a brief semi-solo interlude, plays acoustic guitar. At Friday night’s packed performance at Knoxville’s historic Bijou Theatre, Bush immediately showed why in fact he’s such a fan favorite. Granted, his blend of bluegrass and Americana makes for a winning combination regardless, but it’s his exuberance and exhilaration as much as his prowess and proficiency that makes an evening with Bush and his band so abundantly entertaining.
“This is our first show of 2019,” Bush proudly proclaimed, exuding the cool and confidence that have become a trademark of his performances, whether on an intimate stage like that of the Bijou, or performing at the myriad of festivals he headlines every year. The song selection was, as always, primarily of the upbeat variety and often led to extended jams, and a blazing rendition of Great Balls of Fire proved emphatically that Bush and his band — award winning banjo player Scott Vestal, guitarist Stephen Mougin, bassist Todd Parks, and drummer Chris Brown — can break the boundaries and rock reliably. And while each musician was given ample opportunity to share the spotlight, there was nothing akin to extraneous embellishment imbued in the proceedings.
The set list was a varied mix, beginning with the lively Play By Your Own Rules from Bush’s latest album, Storyman, and proceeding through the rousing revelry of Bluegrass Train, Same Ol‘ Blues, Greenbrier, and the exhilarating encore, Stop the Violence. Introducing the latter, Bush noted that he and co-writer Jeff Black penned the song some ten years ago, but sadly it’s a clarion call that’s needed more now than ever.
There were other poignant moments as well, none more so than the touching ballad, Circles Around Me, an ode to Telluride in a specific sense, but in a larger sense, an expression of joy about a life well led. Likewise, the group’s homage to one of Bush’s prime mentors, Leon Russell, via a faithful rendition of Stranger in a Strange Land, found Bush imitating Russell’s raspy vocals, all too apt considering the fact that Bush’s band New Grass Revival served as Russell’s back up band early in their career.
Knoxville band Circus No. 9 opened for Bush and his band, and received a rousing reception from the crowd, with many members of the audience shouting out encouragement throughout the quartet’s impressive 45 minute set. Adept instrumentalists, they later joined Bush during the encore, proving that even as an opening act, they were well up to the task of taking center stage.