“My head is in the clouds
But my feet are on the ground
I’m feelin’ good
My spirit’s up
And the sun is shinin’ down”
That chorus – sung by banjoist Wavy Dave Burlingame and his bandmates in Cornmeal’s rousing rendition of “Feet On the Ground,” near the start of their hotwired set – pretty much summed up the evening, as Chicago’s premier progressive bluegrass band rolled into downtown Albany for a blazing show at Jillian’s.
Led by Burlingame and guitarist-vocalist Kris Nowak, the band can fire up a righteous bluegrass breakdown whenever they like, and they did just that. And fiddler Allie Kral unleashed a fleet-fingered Celtic fiddle jig, too.
But Cornmeal’s attack clearly comes from the progressive end of the musical spectrum. Fueled by the ace rhythm section of drummer JP Nowak and bassist Chris Gangi, the band made its definitive musical statement with the sprawling “River Gap,” which started out with a bit of toe-tapping back-porch pickin’, slid into a deep, country-funk groove and then headed straight for the stratosphere, spinning almost out of control with kind of Mahavishnu Orchestra-like fury. Yeah, these guys (and gal) take their bluegrass influences way beyond anything that Bill Monroe ever had in mind.
Hot Buttered Rum’s most recent concert stop in Nippertown was several years back as headliners at Revolution Hall, but this time around they found themselves in the opening act slot. With guitarist Nat Keefe, fiddler-mandolinist Aaron Redner and banjo/dobro player Erik Yates each stepping up to their respective microphones to handle lead vocal chores, HBR hewed a bit closer to bluegrass tradition with such nuggets as “Firefly” and the brand-spankin’ new “Sweet Grass.” And drummer Lucas Carlton set down his sticks and picked up a washboard to rattle home the Gypsy jazz skiffle-swing of “Guns or Butter.”
When they pulled out the covers, however, they stuck with such time-honored jam-band standards as the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie” and the Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek,” with bassist Bryan Horne taking over the lead vocals on the latter, while Redner unleashed a furious fiddle rave-up over the stuttering skip-beat funk rhythm.
By Greg Haymes
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk