Feb 1, 2014, Rhinebeck, NY
Presented by The Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association
Fred Robbins, Videographer
Just over a month has passed since the Haas, Walsh and Marshall house concert was presented by the HVBA in Rhinebeck under Lyn Rosen’s welcoming roof. This weekend she hosted Boston’s Beatle-inspired bluegrass group The Lonely Heartstring Band to an enthusiastic audience on Saturday night.
The Lonely Heartstring Band is a relative newcomer to the bluegrass scene, having formed out of the Boston acoustic music community. The legend goes that these young musicians were asked to play an all-Beatles bluegrass set for a wedding reception. Banjo player Gabe Hirshfeld explains that they took the gig and learned the tunes because, “You don’t say ‘no’ to a man in snake skin boots.” But whatever the reason for their existence, I’m happy that it’s come to be, as they offer a refreshing modern, pop-influenced take on the traditional lineup of guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo and bass fiddle.
So let’s start with the obvious question: Did they play any Beatles tunes? Yes, they played a bunch of Beatles tunes, and it’s safe to say that this was no gimmick. They have a deep respect for the Fab Four’s music, as was exhibited by the deft arrangements (“When I’m Sixty Four”) and the finely tuned John and Paul vocal harmonies that guitarist George Clements shared with fiddle player Patrick M’Gonigle (“And Your Bird Can Sing”).
Other Beatles’ tunes included rollicking versions of “Lady Madonna” and “Got to Get You Into My Life,” a ‘turquoise-grass’ version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” complete with fiddle and mandolin doubling up to reproduce the famous harpsichord lines, a pliant “Norwegian Wood” that allowed M’Gonigle to stretch out in a modal jam at the end, and a soulful encore of Abbey Road’s “Oh, Darlin!”
But this night was not just about the Beatles. The Lonely Heartstrings know the traditional bluegrass repertoire, and they interspersed classics with some of their own originals. The classics included a ripping run through of Earl Scruggs’ “Ground Speed” that featured Gabe Hirshfeld’s fleet finger work on the banjo and the gypsie-tinged playing of some nice group vocals on the Stanley Brothers’ gospel tune, “At the End of the Road”, Bill Monroe’s “Blue Night”, and a version of J.D. Crowe’s “Born to be with You” that gave Matt Witler a chance to display a sparkling, articulate style on his newly acquired Gilchrist mandolin.
And not to forget the originals since the LHB has several accomplished composer/songwriters in their midst, including Hirshfeld’s instrumental “Legend of Snake Jackson” and George Clements’ soulful, introspective, “Deep Waters” (“I’ve watched the horizon become the rising sun, as I turned my back on these deep waters”). Clements possesses a sweet, clear voice that’s perfect for this type of lyric, and the mournful fiddle and harmony vocals by M’Gonigle added just the right counterpoint. Listen to this song yourself on YouTube.
On a night of such good music, I was somewhat surprised by what became the highlight in my mind. The guys played a wonderfully simple and heartfelt version of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.” Clements’ voice was harmonized by the voice of his twin brother, bassist and newest member of the group, Charles Clements. There was something very fresh and yet timeless about how they approached the song, and I heard it as if for the first time. And I think there were not many dry eyes in the house by the end of the song. I hope they record their version of the song. I hope we are witnessing a new resurgence of social awareness and passion for sharing our musical heritage in all it’s diversity, and I hope that somewhere, somehow, Pete is smiling and saying, “Yes, that is what I wish for you all.”
Lynn Lipton: You are so right, Max! It was a great evening and “If I Had A Hammer” did move me to tears. I loved this group and hope to hear (and see) them again very soon.