Seldom Scene in Lexington, MA – Notes from the Bluegrass Road

Lexington, MA lies a few miles outside Boston in the heart of Paul Revere country, a few miles from the "little bridge at Concord where freedom’s fight began" and Walden Pond.  The town drips history and Boston gentility.  The National Heritage Museum is located on the edge of town amidst lovely, large clapboard houses and stone walls where once Puritan farms produced food for Boston.  The museum celebrates American history from the perspective of the Masonic lodge.  It also has a well designed 400 seat auditorium where the Boston Bluegrass Union ( presents a series of bluegrass events during the long cold winters when outdoor bluegrass events are merely impossible to hold.  These events are held monthly, except for February when the BBU hosts the Joe Val Bluegrass festival ( , which won the 2006 Bluegrass Event of the Year at the IBMA awards.

This cool, sunny Saturday afternoon has drawn us eighty miles from Keene, NH to see The Seldom Scene, which, in our case, have managed to live up to their name.  As usual, we arrive before the door is open.  Shortly after 6:00 fans are starting to arrive for the 7:30 concert, and soon the line winds around the lobby.  The door opens at 6:40, and soon there is hardly a seat remains empty.  The opening act, a regional group called The Pine Hill Ramblers, does a creditable job of playing and singing and is roundly supported, being called back for an encore even though the crowd is eager for the main event.

The MC comes out and with very little fanfare introduces The Seldom Scene.  In one of his incomparable satiric stories, Ron Thomason, of Dry Branch Fire Squad, asks an old time singer to explain to him the difference between "Amazing Grace" and "Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone,"  As he listens to the two songs side by side, a light comes on in Thomason’s mind and he realizes, "It’s the words!"  Often critics of bluegrass music complain that the music is repetitive and lacking in something, that, for want of a better term, I’ll call soul.  With The Seldom Scene, it’s all about the music and Style.  From the moment Dudley Connell hits his first chord, standing in the middle, a great grin on his face and his glasses already sliding down his nose, the audience knows it’s in for a different sort of bluegrass experience.

Only one original member of Seldom Scene remains with the band, Ben Eldridge, a brilliant banjo player.  The incomparable John Duffey died ten years ago.  John Starling, Mike Auldridge, and Tom Grey moved on to other pursuits after leaving an incomparable stamp and setting the highest standards for this band that, after 35 years, still weaves an incomparable magical web of music blending traditional bluegrass with elements of rock, blues, and folk.  Connell, formerly of the Johnson Mountain Boys, has been with the band for about ten years.  In coming to The Scene, he changed his focus from traditional bluegrass to this much more eclectic mix.  Connell’s every move, grin, and twitch communicates energy and commitment to each song.

Lou Reid rejoined Seldom Scene after John Duffey’s death.  He brings roots deep in bluegrass with a rock and roll sentiment.  As a current member of several acclaimed bands, his own band Lou Reid and Carolina as well as Longview and Seldom Scene, Reid has also served with Doyle Lawson and Quick Silver and Ricky Skaggs.  He brings an impeccable pedigree along with fine musicianship and voice to the band.

Fred Travers plays a wonderfully clean dobro and offers a pure, balladic tenor voice to the group, while Ronnie Simpkins on base maintains a most solid beat while adding a virtuoso jazz bass line.  Near the end of the second set, the rest of the band left the stage while Simpkins and Eldridge played a duo that exhibited both their taste and virtuosity.  Just a wonderful riff.

Wickipedia points out that in addition to being one of the banjo players featured in "Master of the Five String Banjo," Eldridge is also a mathematician.  Eldridge brings the precision of the mathematician he is along with inventiveness, wit, and humor to his banjo.  While this iteration of The Seldom Scene is far removed from the original band, what they do sounds great and they generate enormous enthusiasm in the audience.  The trio is tight and harmonious and when Simpkins adds his resonant bass, the quartet is great, too.  The mob around the sales table at the break attests to the enthusiasm this band generates in its fans.  It’s also interesting to note that nearly 400 people turned out in suburban Boston for this bluegrass event.  Bluegrass is alive and well in the northeast.