Review and photographs by J Hunter
There are days when I think critical terminology gets just a little too precious – when we spend far too much time inventing impressive, multi-syllabic words in an attempt to make us sound intellectual. Take “Americana,” for instance. It’s a wonderfully useful umbrella phrase that covers everything from Doc Watson to Bill Frisell and everything in between. That being said, I’m sorry, but for me, “Americana” just sucks the air out of the room – particularly when it comes to a grinning bluegrass juggernaut like Nashville’s Howlin’ Brothers.
“Well, what do you know about bluegrass, J?” you may ask. “You only listen to jazz!” And that’s a fair point. I’ll admit my bluegrass recordings collection begins – and ends – with the Jerry Garcia/David Grisman/Peter Rowan one-off Old and in the Way, and my concert experience is limited to seeing Grisman once, Ricky Skaggs twice (once with Bruce Hornsby as his co-star), David Bromberg four times, and making one trip to the Oxford Bluegrass Festival… although Bill Monroe was the headliner, so that should count for something. Nevertheless, even though Regina Carter paid a loving homage to the music of Appalachia and points south last month at the Egg, that tribute was heavily filtered through a 21st-century jazz mindset; the Howlin’ Brothers are the real, unsullied, 100-proof thing.
Forget about giving the multi-generational audience a chance to breathe. At The Linda, the Brothers were off and running with “If I’m Drunk” the second they confirmed they were in tune, with Ian Craft firing off lyrics when he wasn’t bowing his fiddle at near-light speed. Bassist Ben Plasse and guitarist Jared Green were right there with him, throwing in off-kilter harmonies that sounded totally wrong and completely right at the same time. Plasse had a look of pure joy on his face as he slapped his bass like it said something about his momma, and Green picked and strummed his beat-up acoustic guitar so hard, you understood why it had a wear-hole that resembled a .50-caliber entry wound.
It’s true the Brothers threw some Cajun spice on their burning 90-minute set: “Louisiana” (one of many tunes they played from their latest release Trouble), was nothing but infectious fun, while Ben Plasse’s “Monroe” had a serious longing you could feel in your heart. “I Am a Pilgrim” could have been an outtake from the Byrds’ prototypical country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and “Dixie Fried” probably could be covered by any of the current crop of young country stars (but it wouldn’t sound nearly as good as it did here). We even got a little bit of folk from a dead-straight sing-along version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” But with all that, the lion’s share of the show was Saturday Night at the Barn Dance, with Green literally dancing in the aisles when he wasn’t stepping lively on the wooden board behind his mic.
Yes, I’m comparatively a bluegrass rookie, but I’ve seen Grisman and I’ve seen Bromberg, and Ian Craft can stand toe-to-toe with both of them, whether he’s playing fiddle or banjo – and that includes the slide banjo he played on “Pour It Down.” Craft handled the bulk of the vocals on this evening, and there wasn’t a bit of polish on any of them (and I’m not complaining one little bit), and when his partners left the stage so Craft could sing one of his sister’s favorite spirituals, he held the audience in the palm of his hand. Plasse’s got a voice that’s just as strong, and we got a big taste of that when Craft took over the bass so Plasse could rock a beautiful red Gretsch guitar on “Take Me Down” and the dark, luscious “Troubled Waltz.” Grant offered great contrast to Plasse’s guitar on the former tune, and while his vocals weren’t as strong as his partners’ efforts, he more than made up for it in his picking and his energy.
It all ended so quickly and so sweetly. After the super-charged bluegrass of “The River Road,” the Brothers took it a cappella for a marvelously hushed take on “And I Bid You Good Night.” As much as I love the Grateful Dead’s version of that traditional, you can’t deny the real thing when it’s standing in front of you. All you can do is just sit back, take it in, and keep that experience in your heart, because it’s got such a wonderful glow.