Sparks flew as these two bluegrass powerhouses lit up the State Theater in Northern Virginia on the weekend of January 16th. It only took Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen a few measures of their opening hard-driving remake of The Letter to ignite the place. From that moment until the Stringdusters left the stage the next night, the place was absolutely ablaze.
The IBMA’s 2015 Instrumental Group of the Year performed a perfect set of songs pulled primarily from its Grammy-nominated album, Cold Spell. The IBMA got it right. Each instrumentalist in Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen is top-notch. Solivan made his mandolin sing, angelic one moment and letting it howl the next, and laid down that rhythmic chop with panache. Mike Munford displayed his impeccable style during banjo-centric Yeah Man, and even played a man-made wawa sound on She said She Will. He confirmed why he was Banjo Player of the Year. Phenom Chris Luquette expertly picked off jaw-dropping solos including on No Life in This Town and She Said She Will. All the while, he wove his flawless guitar-playing into the fabric of each song. Danny Booth held it all together seamlessly with his soulful bass-playing. Together, they were tight and clean. Spotless, despite their name.
Their voices are to die for too, and they let that be known. The sweet Solivan sound rang out time and again. On No Life in This Town and Say It Isn’t So, he had our hearts aching, but hoping he’d never stop singing. Oh, that voice: it just soars. And, Booth’s vocals meshed perfectly with harmonies from Frank and Chris on Wild Unknown. Their layered, long-note lyrics on their title track burrowed into our souls until they brought us to that magnificent, melodic slow drop: “It’s another cold spell again.” It was a cold spell, but with the band’s hot talent, we got through it together in a most enjoyable way.
Booth got us hopping again with rock-solid singing in their incredible rendition of Country Song. People then grooved to the funkiness of She Said She Will, where Frank’s pipes were smoking. To fan the flames that were already roaring, they threw more blistering banjo at us with Line Drive.
Hats off to Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen. But, Frank can leave his signature hat on. This band has got it going on, and the world is now watching. You should be too.
The embers had been more than stoked. And, then the Infamous Stringdusters, no strangers to IBMA awards and Grammy nods, took the stage, and just burned the place up. Over the two nights, the Dusters regaled the sold out crowds with more than 50 songs. It was downright epic. Their sets ranged from early bluegrass to raging romps, gigantic jams and remarkable covers. They have such a vast repertoire of gems, and they performed each with endless enthusiasm.
They kicked off with Light & Love, a tinge Grateful Dead-y with Andy Hall howling out the vocals and killing it on the dobro. Shades of things to come as one highlight of the first night was a fabulous version of Scarlett Begonias. The crowd just could not get enough of that one. Covers on Friday also included amazing all with In God’s Country and ripping into a mean Cripple Creek. They threw in John Hartford and more Dead on Saturday to wild applause. Mostly, though, they pulled from their excellent albums to provide their unique sound that all came to hear.
The Dusters went old school with 17 Cents, Fork in the Road, Poor Boy’s Delight and No More to Leave You Behind. They paid homage to their locale with Starry Night and I Know You Rider. They made us yearn to touch the sky with Colorado and Mountain Town. And, they had some unbelievable jams on Long Lonesome Day, Hitchhiker, Get it While You Can, the Dead tunes and so, so many more. They also brought Frank Solivan up to get it with him on Angeline the Baker and Blue Night.
The Stringdusters’ jams were not mere jams though. Go to 11? No. More like 100. They started with a fan favorite, two locked into a groove and the others leapt into it one at a time. All the while they ascended level by level with twists along the way. Just when we were at the peak thinking the music could not get any better, they rocketed us over the edge into a brilliant fusion of sizzling strings. The dust flew off those strings in heaps as they furiously picked. he smoke was thick from it, the place was scorching and it seemed something was about to explode. They then reeled us back in at the perfect moment for us to again sing along to that favorite tune that began what seemed like hours ago. The crowd loved each one of those journeys.
Those levels they go to? They took it to the highest on Saturday with a duel. Mid-song of Well Well, guitar-wizard Falco and banjo-maven Pandolfi each made a dash for their side of the balcony. With spotlights on them, their shadows playing along, they battled it out trading solos over the top of the ecstatic mob below. Incredible idea. Perfect picking. They both won that duel. In fact, the whole band did.
The Infamous Stringdusters are simply a tour de force. Standing tall, smiling, and strumming the strings on the stand-up, Travis Book perfectly provides the pulse of their sound. Andy Falco has fingers flying all over that guitar and goes tiptoe to get those impossible notes; there is nothing he cannot play. Pandolfi belies his seeming zen-like state as he pings and pops that 5-string into a fantastic frenzy. Andy Hall throws it down on the dobro with funk and fortitude. And, Jeremy Garrett has something to say on that fiddle; his bow whips and tears it up with authority. You best be paying attention. Hard not to.
Whether it was a hip tune or traditional one, from Fearless to Home of the Red Fox, their extreme talents were on display all weekend long. They volleyed astonishing solos around the horn, with their circle-the-soloist style, grinned constantly and belted out lyrics like there was no tomorrow. With those true voices coming at us, we really did not care if there was one. When Andy Hall sings, he tests your grit in the best way possible. Travis will make you think of all things love. Falco will put you at peace. And, Jeremy will make you question what is in your soul: Will you really be where the rivers run cold? Will you get away? Their voices together are heaven, as they validated, in particular, on Let it Go.
No one wanted it to end. Not the thralls of festival types on the floor, nor the gray-tinted cardigan folk seated in the balcony. The band’s broad appeal is a testament to their talent, and all goers left smiling with great memories seared into their minds.
The Infamous Stringdusters host the Festy in October near Charlottesville. Go. They set the State Theater afire. But, you should also see them light up the open sky. Catch a show before then though. Each one is a festival unto itself.