Two of the most happening and inventive newgrass/acoustic groups tore down the Morris Center this past Thursday night in one of the most delightful double bills the Savannah Music Festival has seen in awhile.
Joy Kills Sorrow and The Deadly Gentlemen have been trading opening slots during the Festival; this particular night, Joy Kills Sorrow opened but was clearly the more dynamic group. I suspect this is because the show I saw was Joy Kills Sorrow’s third concert of the day. They had pushed through the fatigue and owned the stage as if they lived there -- perhaps because they did! Simply put, they were in the zone.
JKS is fronted by Emma Beaton, a fiery-haired, charismatic and intensely evocative singer with soul way beyond her years (only 22!). Her delivery combines Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin and Adele, if you can believe that. This is one of those bands, however, where the vocalist is able to shine precisely because of the enormous skill of the band; as good as Beaton is, you get the sense that they lift her on their shoulders.
And lifting the rest of the band onto his diminutive shoulders is mandolin player Jake Joliff, whose wildly careening, inventive runs take the instrument into a whole new arena. Unlike the rote step-toward-the-mike mandolin solos we tend to hear from bluegrass/newgrass groups both young and old, Joliff’s mandolin work anchors the entire tune, very much in the manner of a lead guitarist of a rock band.
Literally – Joliff channeled the macho/bluesy style of Duane Allman and Jimmy Page as well as the blinding speed and pure metal thrash of Dimebag Darrell of Pantera fame. Quite simply the most stunning display of mandolin mastery I’ve seen – and you tend to see a lot of mandolin mastery at the Savannah Music Festival.
JKS's songs are inventive as well, combining nods to old-school narrative songwriting as well as a more bluesy, personal style. A particular highlight was the group's now-legendary cover of The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights."
The Deadly Gentlemen brought a certain twee New England slumming sensibility to their set. They are funny, affable, skilled, enthusiastic – but also give just the slightest wink and nudge to the idea that they’re from Boston and are doing a great job at play-acting newgrass. The presence of Sam Grisman, bass-playing son of the great David Grisman, seems to lend credence to the more packaged aspect of the group.
That said, banjo player Greg Liszt – who bears a striking resemblance to the famously flamboyant composer/pianist of the same name -- is simply a delight, with a truly inventive non-traditional take on this traditional instrument. His stock in trade is not so much Bela Fleck-style experimentalism as it is just gonzo, rock-style playing up and down the fret board. Liszt also loves his free-form poetry and delivered a few Ivy League-style humorous poems in between songs.