Review by Greg Haymes
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
“Thank you. Y’all make a bunch of hillbillies feel right at home,” declared the Lonesome River Band’s banjo man Sammy Shelor, as he kicked off the second of two hour-long sets with a sparkling rendition of “John Hardy” that served as an instrumental showcase for the all-star bluegrass band that brought the back-porch high lonesome sound to the swank Troy Savings Bank Music Hall recently.
And there was no question that all seven musicians were masters on their respective instruments – and they each had multiple trophies from the International Bluegrass Music Association to prove it.
But this wasn’t a band per se, and as bassist Missy Raines explained, the program featured “music that we don’t normally get to play together – old standards and new songs.”
It wasn’t, however, some random grouping of top-notch pickers. Before launching into the harmony-laden farewell ballad, “Amelia Earhardt’s Last Ride,” guitarist Kenny Smith stepped up to the microphone and admitted, “I just realized that I’ve got three of my bosses on stage right now.” Indeed, he used to play in the Lonesome River Band with Shelor, as well as in the Front Porch Band with vocalist-guitarist Claire Lynch. And he now plays as a duo with his wife Amanda Smith, who was standing on the opposite side of Lynch at the Music Hall stage.
So while the players went really a “band,” they certainly were intimately familiar with each other, musically speaking.
And it wasn’t really all about the “band.” In fact, all seven musicians were only rarely together onstage at the same time. Instead, it was a constantly shifting formation of pickers – varying duos, trios, quartets (well, you get the idea) – rumbling through high mountain breakdowns and heartbreaking ballads.
They cherry-picked selections from bluegrass history, rippling through nuggets from the songbags of the likes of Doc Watson (a slightly ragged rendition of “Black Mountain Rag”), Jimmie Rodgers (the yodel-fueled “Waitin’ for a Train”), Reno Smiley (the uptempo leavin’-not-grievin’ hit-the-road song, “Long Gone”) and, of course, Bill Monroe (with Lynch leading “Midnight On the Stormy Deep”). Throughout the evening, they tossed in some Appalachian funk (with the novelty dance craze “Wiggle Worm Wiggle”) and some Django-inspired instrumental Hot Club swing (“Sweet Georgia Brown”). Fiddler Michael Cleveland was at his best on the hot-wired, breakneck-tempo instrumentals like his smokin’-up-the-rosin solo on “Lee Highway Blues.”
And they brought the music right up into the 21st century as well, most notably with Kenny and Amanda Smith nailing a splendid rendition of Gillian Welch’s “Come and Gone.”
Of course, you just can’t have a bluegrass show without a gospel number, and they finally got around to closing out the show with “Over in the Glory Land” although there was a slight delay as mandolinist-vocalist Josh Williams dashed offstage to get his lyric sheet for the song. He returned with the piece of paper in his hand, and not-so-sheepishly admitted, “Hey, I’m not gonna hide it.”
Yeah, it was loose, but it was fun…