I absolutely love listening to music. It’s playing in my house all through the day. I can’t walk or drive down the street without firing up my iPod or radio. Sometimes I pour a little Jack Daniels on ice and sit alone in front of my very best speakers, so I can enjoy every instrument and every voice. You probably feel the same, if you’re reading this blog. To really hear music, however, you have to see it performed live. Something communal happens when a superior performer and the audience are together that enhances the listening dynamic.
I know nothing I’ve just said is new, but it was brought home to me again just a few nights ago when I saw a thrilling two for one show put on by one of the best known acts in bluegrass and a comparatively much lesser known folk singer at the Carolina Theater in Durham, NC.
The Earls of Leicester were the headliners. There’s no wonder they’ve won the IBMA Entertainer of The Year three years in a row. The brio and speed with which they perform the oeuvre of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys combined with a relaxed manner and humorous repartee made for a truly fun evening. I had the pleasure of seeing Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys in person in about 1964 or ’65. They were better than anybody else in my opinion including Bill Monroe’s band because they had three guys, Scruggs on banjo, Paul Warren on fiddle and Josh Graves on dobro, who were the best in the business on their respective instruments. Anyway, the Earls boast top of the line talent across the board themselves, led of course by dobro phenom Jerry Douglas, who organized the group as an homage to Lester and Earl. As you’ve probably guessed, the group’s name is a play on their names.
I spoke with Shawn Camp, the band’s lead singer and guitarist after the show. He’s a particular favorite in part because of his work previously with Guy Clark and because of his performance at the Western Classic Benefit for the Foundation Fighting Blindness. He’s a damn good lead guitar player in his own right, but in the Flatt and Scruggs arrangements, he’s strictly a rhythm guitarist. Having said that, the pace at which most of the songs are played means his right hand is a blur song after song after song. I don’t know how anybody can strum that fast for that long. My real point with this observation is that seeing the performance added another dimension to hearing the music. Watching the musicians bob, weave and maneuver among the omni directional mics, trade quips, and interact with the audience was exhilarating. Yes, these guys are premier musicians, but they are also performers of equal rank as you’ll see in this two song segment from Merlefest.
(I wrote about The Earls’ second album, Rattle & Roar, in a previous post. Their debut album was titled simply The Earls Of Leicester. Both are excellent.)
The opening act was every bit as compelling in a different kind of way. I was not familiar with Jonathan Byrd who lives in Chapel Hill but tours quite a bit, especially in Texas, where he plays places like the Kerrville Folk Festival and Gruene Hall. He’s clearly influenced by some of my Texas songwriter faves, yet he has his own style. He writes, plays a strong acoustic guitar and sings quite well. On this night he was accompanied by a guy named Johnny Waken, a virtuoso who played mandolin, electric guitar, harmonica, tambourine and the saw, while also singing backing harmonies at times. These two guys blew me away. Byrd’s songs were terrific, powerful at times, humorous at others – all in all genuine folk music. And the songs were enhanced by the showmanship, which in Waken’s case involved singular attire and an unforgettable beard reminiscent of the Soggy Bottom Boys in the finale to the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou.” Plus he moved all about the stage, sometimes dramatically, sometimes comedically. He was one cool dude. The stage in these videos is not as expansive as the Carolina Theater’s, but I hope they give you a feel for the experience of Jonathan and Johnny live.
In a sense, Byrd played the straight man, stationery at his vocal mic in jeans, shirt and battered straw cowboy hat, while Waken was free to roam. The effect was never distracting. Rather it compelled me to watch as well as listen, and the dance between the two combined with marvelous playing reinforced the drama, comedy or tragedy of the songs. Even though the crowd was there to see The Earls, they were truly mesmerized by Byrd’s and Waken’s show and gave them a standing ovation. I picked up a couple of Byrd’s CD’s after the show. Cackalack includes several numbers he performed that night. Trio is the only one I found that includes Waken, so it’s closer to the sound of their show. I enjoy the albums, but what I really want to do is see him again in person. For those of you who can easily get to the Chapel Hill area, he often plays on Wednesday nights at a club just outside town called The Kraken. His website has him there on Wednesday’s through mid March, then again in late March. Highly recommended. “Working Offshore” is a tad lengthy at about seven minutes, but it’s a classic example of a performance whose power builds through lyrics that steadily reveal a gripping story augmented by instrumental improvisation that builds searing intensity.
Check out Jonathan Byrd’s story and another sample video on his web site www.jonathanbyrd.com.
Finally, just to bring this all around full circle, here is Lester and Earl and the Foggy Mountain Boys doing their own rendition of “Salty Dog Blues.” And as a poignant footnote, the fiddler here Paul Warren is the father of Johnny Warren of The Earls of Leicester, who plays his father’s fiddle.