Friday, April 6, 2012

Bye Bye Bluegrass Nazi, Hello Hipster

I was at a concert in Washington D.C. recently that would have killed a Bluegrass Nazi. I know. Using the word "Nazi" when not referring to WW II isn't very PC, but that's what they're called. The term commonly describes fans who narrowly define what's acceptable within a music genre and reject deviation. There are also jazz, classical and even metal Nazis.

The show featured the band the Infamous Stringdusters at a venue called the 9:30 Club. The opening act was  Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad who turned out to be a self-described psychedelic reggae five piece band.

When I told the cab driver where I wanted to go he asked me "Who's playing there?"
The bouncer at the 9:30 Club 

 "Why do you ask?"

"Well.. uh..," he said. "Um.. it's mostly kids there."

"What? You think I'm too old for this place?"

His response was a nervous laugh which meant  YES.

The place was packed. And, he was right, it was a younger crowd, but there were 40-pluses there too sprinkled among the young and the hip.

The show was similar to most rock shows I've been to but nothing like any bluegrass concert I have attended. It was St. Patrick's Day so there was a titch more drinking than usual and funny hats and of course boys trying to hook up with girls.

The opening act was solid. The young white reggae band was tight and the crowd was into them. In the back of my mind I thought about a Ramones / Joe Jackson show I went to in the late 70s. Half the audience - Ramones fans - left before Jackson came on stage because, presumably he wasn't punk enough.

That didn't happen. The reggae band finished. Nobody left. After a break with funk and R 'n' B playing on the PA, the all-acoustic headliners took the stage and the crowd went wild. It's no wonder. While the concert was rooted in bluegrass, the energy, volume and light show was strictly rock n roll. It was great.

Bluegrass is based on old styles of American folk music but it's not as old as many people think. The term was coined in the late 30s and 40s  and was defined by the music played by Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs, the banjo player who played in Bill's band.

A traditional Bluegrass band was four or five pieces -  upright bass (never electric), banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar. Depending who you talk to a Dobro / resonator slide guitar is also acceptable. NEVER DRUMS. Bluegrass vocals are harmonies with the tenor vocal up front. Every body wears shirt and tie and cowboy hats.

I watched a serious, no foolin' Bluegrass-Nazi up close once. My friend Mike Stevens, a harmonica player, was performing with Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys at a bluegrass festival in upstate New York in the mid 90s. I was sitting with friends at the Jim and Jesse record table. A man walked up and began yelling at us, really yelled for five minutes and he wouldn't let up: "Tell Jim and Jesse they don't need no goddamn harmonica player." He stared us down as if he really expected us to say okay we're leaving. We didn't.

Happily though, bands such as New Grass Revival as far back as the 70s were bucking the trend while using bluegrass as a jumping off point to reinvent the music. They added electric instruments and drums and rock/pop style vocals and basically pissed off the traditionalists. Even one of the fathers of bluegrass, Earl Scruggs, stretched the genre when he performed with his sons in the Earl Scruggs Revue. I am happy to tell you I saw them perform in Calgary, Alberta many years ago.  

Many young bands have breathed new life into the genre, all thanks to the Americana "Oh Brother..musical wave that blew in in the late 90s. Nickel Creek, Old Crow Medicine Show, Punch Brothers and (a favourite) Avett Brothers.You'll find all of them along the punk, rock n roll and traditional stringband / bluegrass folk roots music continuum. While at the same time, Steve Martin has picked up his ol' banjo and breathed life into the more traditional side of things fronting the Steep Canyon Rangers. And of course you can always depend on Bela Fleck to open up his bag of banjo tricks, even though he keeps at least a toe dipped in the bluegrass water.

I know you bluegrass Nazis are still out there. I can hear you breathing. But it does my heart good to know that this traditionally based acoustic music has outgrown you and it packing in a wider audience in clubs and festivals all over North America.