LIVE: Gangstagrass @ the Eighth Step Coffeehouse, GE Theater, Schenectady 1/10/2020

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In a conventional way of thinking, one would think that bluegrass and hip-hop are diametric opposites with little in common… am I right?

Well at the concert at the Eighth Step, Gangstagrass set out to prove that that conventional thinking is wrong. And here’s proof:

  1. Both musical styles originated from “common folk”, bluegrass from the Appalachians, hip-hop from the South Bronx.
  2. Both have a strong element of improvisation, competitiveness, and virtuosity. Hip-hop with freestyle practiced by the MCs, bluegrass with the rapid-fire playing of banjo, bass, and fiddle.
  3. Both can speak about prison and other hard times.

With that in mind, it became clear that the styles have many similarities. Initially, the heavy beat of hip-hop mixed with intricate picking of the banjo, guitar, and fiddle was strange but within a few songs, it began to make sense. The poetic recitations of the MCs added to the musical stew and most of the audience was nodding to and clapping to the rhythm when intently listening to the strains of bluegrass. The ears listening intently to the lyrics and music with bodies swaying to the beat, a combination of the body and mind.

Opening with “Bound to Ride”, started off leaning toward bluegrass with a beat and then the beat dominated. The next number, “Barn Burning,” did exactly the opposite, opening with more of a beat, then the bluegrass-style pickin’ dominated the sound. The mixing of the two genres was seamless throughout the two sets. The two MCs were in constant motion and encouraged audience participation. The originator of the concept Rench interestingly enough had the least visual presence in the band, although swaying with the music preferred to have the music and the other musicians convey his presence. The one traditional bluegrass tune that was covered was “Man of Constant Sorrow” (featured in the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou) sounded new, touching the old tune but covering new ground with freestyling in between the choruses.

Along with updating both traditions with their sound, Gangstagrass also educated us on the popular music of the 20s and 30s. They mentioned that in the Jim Crow South, the same music was packaged to both black and white audiences. “Race Music” was marketed with pictures of black musicians. Identical “Hillbilly Music” recordings were marketed with pictures of white musicians. Basically this shows us we have more in common than we have different. An important message in these divisive times. Hopefully, the music will continue to bring us together

Band Members

  • Rench: vocals/guitar/beats
  • Dan Whitener: banjo/vocals
  • Brian Farrow: fiddle/vocals
  • R-Son The Voice of Reason: MC
  • Dolio The Sleuth: MC

Setlist

1st Set: Bound to Ride, Barn Burning, Never Go Home, freestyle, Nobody Gonna Miss Me, Jig, Gunslinging Rambler, Wrath, Put Your Hands Up, Red Sky

2nd Set: Long Grey River, Keep Talking, Man of Constant Sorrow, Long Hard Times, Nickel and Dime, All for One, I Go Hard, Ain’t No Stopping, I’m Gonna Put You Down

Photo Gallery by Rudy Lu

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