With increased inoculations and safety protocols firmly at the fore, the Steep Canyon Rangers’ concert this past Sunday at The Caverns in Grundy County, Tennessee offered the promise that a real return to live music may now be more than a glimmer on the horizon. Indeed, it offered these festival favorites an opportunity to play before a live audience, albeit in a limited capacity, while reminding their fans that even with fewer playing possibilities due to the pandemic, they remain as polished and precise as ever, and never prone to ever disappoint.
While the underground environs of The Caverns remain restricted, the venue’s outdoor amphitheater provided an acceptable alternative, given the fact that the audience was assigned to their own personal pods, and capacity was limited to a modest 400 people. That allowed for intimacy, a rare commodity in a festival-like setting.
Indeed, there were other concessions as well. The band itself operated within a stripped-down scenario, given the absence of fiddler Nicky Sanders and mandolinist Mike Guggino for COVID-related reasons. In their place, the group recruited dobro player Tommy Maher, a fellow North Carolina denizen and member of the Asheville-based band Fireside Collective, who subbed in fine form, and seamlessly performed his role as a reliable ringer. Granted, Sanders vibrant onstage antics were missed, as was his searing fiddle work, but to his credit, Maher added an extra element to the Steeps’ sound that left no gaps in their sturdy aural onslaught. So too, while Guggino is also an essential element within the ensemble, Maher ably took up the slack and did an excellent job of compensating for the missing instrumental additives.
With their front line down from four players to three, frontmen Woody Platt (guitar and vocals) and Graham Sharp (banjo, harp, guitar, and vocals) provided the solid, stoic presence that is, of course, key to the band’s essential sound. Both men are excellent singers, with Platt’s emotive vocals providing a key counterpoint to Sharp’s deeper, resonant singing. What’s more, the band has another strong asset in the vocal department, courtesy of the added responsibilities assigned their newest member, bassist Barrett Smith. He has clearly found a fine fit within the ranks while easily holding his own as one of the group’s prime player as well.
Still, Steep Canyon Ranger’s most reliable utility player has to be drummer Mike Ashworth, whose percussive positioning is nearly outweighed by the other instrumental additives he contributes, including guitar, banjo, and harmony vocals. Given the fact that when he joined the band, he was relegated to beating on a box, he’s certainly ascended to prominence ever since. A multi-instrumentalist of exceptional acumen, he’s now emerged as one of the Steeps’ most impressive overall assets.
Happily then, the absence of two key players didn’t diminish the powers of the group’s performance. With the majority of the set drawn from their latest album, the solidly superb Arm In Arm, the band sounded tight, taut, and focused, whether in full throttle or with only acoustic accompaniment. The newer material such as Every River, Honey On My Tongue, Crystal Ship, and Afterglow resonated with the same emotional resolve that’s marked the band’s best efforts throughout their current career, while familiar standbys such as Come Dance, Stand and Deliver, and Tell the Ones I Love proved as potent as ever.
Ultimately, as last Sunday’s concert proved yet again, The Steep Canyon Rangers know how to mine their populist appeal, with both the personality and prowess to please an adoring audience. It’s little wonder then that they have not only ascended to the heights of the grassicana world, but have also made a formidable impression in the wider Americana realms as well. This emphatic performance offered yet another reason why.