There’s no question that bluegrass musicians – or at least cats playing in those kinds of outfits – are among the most versatile around. It’s unclear whether this is because its leading contemporary practitioners – the likes of Bela Fleck and Chris Thile – have succeeded in injecting a little bit of everything into bluegrass (or a little bit of bluegrass into everything, depending on how you look at it), or because of its unique roots in the music of African Americans and the various traditions of the British Isles, or because of something else entirely. Regardless, this is illustrated well by the 5-piece group headed by Abigail Washburn, the clawhammerin’ banjoist and remarkably strong and soulful vocalist, whom I had the pleasure of seeing in concert at the Tin Angel in Philadelphia back on January 12th.
Washburn is at her core an Appalachian singer-songwriter, a self-description she ventured repeatedly over the course of the show, but hers aren’t the only songs that make up their setlists. The group’s (mostly) guitarist, a multi-instrumentalist (keyboard and trumpet, too) indie-pop rocker named Kai Welch, also penned a couple of their tunes, including one of the strongest: Sentimental Queen.
Washburn made much of the stylistic contrast between Appalachia and indie, half-jokingly – and repeatedly – making cracks about the bitter struggle between the two. At least once, Welch parried that he’d like to think there’s an alliance between the styles. (The light, charming banter was nearly as prominent a feature of the performance as the music itself, and no less entertaining.)
And indeed there is an alliance. The group had on display the very best elements of both: the rhythms of clawhammer, the hook-ey indie melodies, the emotionally accessible Appalachian lyrics, the fiddle licks channeling bluegrass, and even a bit of sultry-voiced, mute-trumpeted, swingin’-bassed vibes for good measure, briefly transforming the room into the ‘30s underground, swirling smoke and all, in Keys to the Kingdom.
None of which would have been possible without the backing group of Rayna Gellert on fiddle, Alana Rockland on bass, and Jamie Dick on drums. The classically trained Gellert gave the group vertical dimensions which would otherwise have been conspicuously absent, and despite her restraint – musical and otherwise– was the closest thing the group had to a lead instrumentalist. Rockland did exactly what a good bassist should (usually) do: held down the bottom line, stayed out of the lead players’ way, and occasionally and dramatically stole the show, as when her hopscotch-lines led the groovy way in Keys to the Kingdom, and when she provided a funkalicious opening to the second set with her electric bass (its only appearance of the evening). And Dick proved his versatility, showing equal levels of comfort in all the group’s myriad styles, and even added a little stand-up bit by showing off his alter egos, among them the sadly gap-toothed, but still charming Whistlin’ Dick.
Abigail Washburn’s group packs a punch, but only some of the time; it’s light, but only when it wants to be; it fills a room, unless the room is more in need of some emptying. And that’s what a great acoustic group like this one can do that’s unavailable to the very best of the amplified: they can subtly play with dynamics, manipulate architectural acoustics, dance between styles, modulate emotions, and ultimately get extremely, even unnervingly close to their audience. And that, along with an extremely moving voice and great songwriting, is what you get from this bunch.
Give these tracks from Abigail’s new album, City of Refuge, a listen: