Review by Greg Haymes
The musical term “bluegrass” means different things to different people these days, even within the bluegrass community. The Gibson Brothers, for example, took home two trophies – including the most prestigious Entertainers of the Year Award – from the International Bluegrass Music Association back in September. But in January, despite three nominations, the Gibsons walked away empty-handed from the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America awards show.
Last month, The Egg in Albany offered a knock-out, sold-out bluegrass double-bill with the Gibson Brothers and Grammy nominee Noam Pikelny & Friends showcasing music from the opposite ends of the ever-widening bluegrass spectrum.
In the headlining slot, the Gibsons – brothers Eric Gibson (banjo/guitar) and Leigh Gibson (guitar) – showcased their vocal firepower and held court on the more traditional end of the playing field, while Pikelny and his all-star combo took their primarily instrumental sound out into the more adventurous newgrass territory. And although neither group held exclusively to their designated musical turfs, they both rocked the house in their own way.
Despite their roots in the Deep North (they grew up on a dairy farm in Clinton County’s Ellenburg Depot in Clinton County, just a stone’s throw from the Canadian border), the Gibson brothers and their band are steeped in the high lonesome tradition. They sang gospel (“Singing As We Rise”) and honky-tonk (“The Darker the Night,” a sneak preview of their upcoming album due nest month) with equal fervor.
They fired up a couple of hot-wired bluegrass instrumentals – Clayton Campbell’s fiery fiddle showcase was particularly hot – but the Gibsons’ real strength is their sibling vocal harmonies. Simply stunning. Eric and Leigh divided up the vocal chores of the evening pretty much evenly, Eric’s keening tenor hitting its highwater mark on “Red Letter Day (For the Blues),” while Leigh’s deeper, more resonant vocals knocked it out of the park with the broken-hearted ballad, “Dreams That End Like This.” And they both offered intimate and deeply personal narratives of their younger, growing-up days, Leigh with the nostalgic “Railroad Line,” while Eric tugged at the heartstrings with “Farm of Yesterday.”
But it wasn’t all about tradition and nostalgia for days gone by. The Gibsons – who also featured mandolinist Joe Walsh and stalwart bassist Mike Barber – weren’t afraid to step outside the strict structures in order to fire up some classic rock tunes – including Tom Petty’s “Cabin Down Below,” as well as a crisp but funky romp through the Band’s “Ophelia” to wrap up the show – fueled with some mighty fancy bluegrass pickin’ and singin’.
Best known as a member of the eccentric and oh-so-adventurous Punch Brothers (where he has to vie for the spotlight with bonafide genius mandolinist-MacArthur Foundation recipient Chris Thile), banjo master Noam Pikelny led his own band of all-star pals to open the show, tapping into the more modern, progressive end of the bluegrass spectrum. And not surprisingly, the selections for their set was culled primarily from Pikelny’s latest solo album on Compass Records, Beat The Devil And Carry A Rail, which is nominated for a Grammy as Best Bluegrass Album.
While Pikelny’s set focused squarely on instrumentals – the waltz-time “The Broken Drought,” the banjo-fiddle duet on “Pineywoods” with Luke Bulla (of Lyle Lovett’s band) and the angular “My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer” – the players were at their best when joined by vocalist Aoife O’Donovan for Tom Waits’ impossible love ballad “Fish and Bird” and the murderous bluegrass blitz of “Pretty Polly.”
THE GIBSON BROTHERS SET LIST
Singing As We Rise
Cabin Down Below (Tom Petty)
The Darker the Night
Early (Greg Brown)
Walkin’ West to Memphis
The Happy Sunny Side of Life
They Called It Music
Dreams That End Like This
Red Letter Day
The Wishing Well
Farm of Yesterday
??? (fiddle instrumental)
Don’t Forget the Coffee, Billy Joe (Tom T. Hall)
Help My Brother
Ophelia (the Band)
Long Journey Home