Last Saturday (November 17, 2012) night’s Lonesome River Band concert at Christ Church in Poughkeepsie provided a vivid reminder of why people go to live performances rather than just sitting at home with CD’s or the radio. The evening was filled with great harmonies, spectacular solo and ensemble instrumentals and fresh interpretations of old tunes. In the words of Lynn Lipton, “it was back-to-back great, toe-tapping music!”
The band members played as if they’d been trading licks for a lifetime, even though this was not the LRB’s usual configuration of instruments, leads and musicians. A schedule conflict prevented guitarist and popular lead singer Brandon Rickman from traveling to Poughkeepsie to perform with LRB. The band drafted Ashby Frank (who joined Michael Cleveland’s “Flamekeeper” in 2011) to play the mandolin and sing lead. This substitution freed up Randy Jones, LRB’s usual mandolin player, to take over on the guitar and sing lead on several other tunes. The result was a “right before your eyes” LRB reinvention – at least for the evening. During the intermission, audience members were asking themselves (and Randy) how he managed to re-program his fingers to play different parts on a different instrument in a matter of a few days.
Legendary banjo player Sammy Shelor (5-time winner of IBMA’s Banjo Player of the Year award and the band’s longest-serving member) was a mixture of confidence, joyfulness and playfulness as his lanky body moved to the beat and he drove the music forward. He kicked off many of the tunes, setting the pace and the mood. He leads this team with a nod here, a look there and very few words. Since Brandon Rickman handles most of the talking and introductions during LRB’s performances, Sammy said he was happy he could hand off most of the talking to Randy on Saturday.
The other old hand in the band is fiddler Mike Hartgrove. He is a fiddler’s fiddler – everyone loves his playing, but the fiddlers and wannabe fiddlers gush about his range, versatility, technical ability and intense focus. It was worth the price of admission just to watch his bowing. He pulled just about every mood you can imagine from that fiddle as he moved effortlessly from backup to using his fiddle to “sing” in harmony with the vocalist. Shelor’s and Hartgrove’s musical virtuosity was on full display in their blazing fast, call-and-response interpretation of the old-time tune “Angeline The Baker,” which won the IBMA award for Instrumental Recording of the Year in 2012.
A great bluegrass band should be able to flawlessly move from one instrumental break to another and trade back and forth from lead to harmony singing. LRB took it a step further: their transitions were so smooth that they seemed to finish each other’s sentences.
Cryin’, Drinkin’, Lovin’ and Leavin’ : There was, of course, a generous measure of songs about broken hearts, shattered dreams, drowning sorrows and leaving if you can. About half of the tunes that LRB played during its two sets are included in the band’s 3-CD Chronology (Rural Rhythm Records. RUR 1101, 1102, and 1103). This excellent collection celebrates LRB’s 30-year history and puts LRB 2012’s distinctive stamp on 25 of the scores of songs that were recorded by earlier LRB configurations. (After the show, Paul Meunier noted that “I am not a big fan of such [chronology] albums, but after realizing it was being done with a new lineup, I committed. What a wonderful decision.”) But even if you’d listened to the CD’s right before the concert, you wouldn’t think you were hearing a repeat of the recordings. The pacing, the improvisation and the different voices reinvented many of these tunes yet again on Saturday night.
The Jimmy Martin tune “Mary Anne” drew an enthusiastic “yes!” and a “do it again!” from at least one audience member. Ashby Frank sang lead, and he harmonized beautifully with Randy. You’d think that they had been singing together for years rather than just during the long bus ride up from southern Virginia. Some in the audience said they were disappointed that Brandon Rickman and his “soulful” voice weren’t at the concert, but they and others were thrilled for the chance to hear Ashby singing.
One of the most delightful surprises of the evening was the band’s great improvisation on “Hobo Blues”. While LRB’s recorded version takes about 5 ½ minutes, the on-stage improvisation lasted 9 minutes plus. With the banjo, bass and fiddle drones going full throttle, you could really hear and feel that train coming down the tracks – and it wasn’t stopping! (Thanks to the HVBA videos posted on You-Tube, I was able to do a post-concert compare/contrast of the CD version and the concert version.) Bass player Barry Reed (who had stayed in the background keeping a strong beat most of the evening) cut loose and dazzled the crowd with some extended jazzy vamping and intricate rhythms. The fiddle soared up and down, and the guitar, banjo and mandolin wove strong improvs through it all. The audience (even die-hard bluegrass purists) loved it!
More on the Lonesome River Band: HVBA’s Fred Robbins was “thrilled and honored” that the LRB permitted him to record and post the entire show on You-Tube. Sets 1 and 2 of the 11/17/12 LRB concert are posted on the web.
On the morning of the concert, Sammy Shelor joined Carol Beaugard on her radio program “Lonesome Pine RFD” heard locally on WFDU-FM and syndicated worldwide on WAMU’s “Bluegrass Country.” Carol ran into many listeners at the concert who came to the show after hearing the interview, and they raved about the band.
The LRB will be appearing in the area again on Friday, April 12, 2013 at The Emelin Theater located on Library Lane in Mamaroneck, NY.