It's amazing what acoustic musicians are creating these days. During her Thursday performance at the Charles H. Morris Center, Abigail Washburn made a passing reference to "progressive string music," meaning the sort of hybrids being built and explored by players such as her husband, the tireless seeker Bela Fleck, and the likes of Chris Thile, or Edgar Meyer, or Mike Marshall, or Washburn herself.
Yep, the "usual suspects" at every year's Savannah Music Festival. And we are glad to have them, thrilled to watch and listen to the places these exemplary musicians are taking the banjo, mandolin, fiddle and other instruments heretofore associated with old-time mountain music and bluegrass. It can be an exhilarating experience.
And yet ... the segment of this particular Savannah Music Festival show that moved most profoundly was the set by veterans Tony Trischka on banjo and Bruce Molsky on fiddle. It was organic and profoundly beautiful - just two extremely gifted musicians standing up and playing old-time tunes and bluegrass. Nothin' fancy.
It was, in a sense, the way the music was meant to be played - simple and unadorned, as if the guys were jamming away on a log cabin porch somewhere in Appalachia.
Trischka paid tribute to the late Earl Scruggs with a three-finger medley of "John Henry," "Bonaparte's Retreat" and something he called "Savannah Breakdown" (this was, the banjo player sheepishly admitted, "shameless pandering" to his audience).
Halfway through, Trischka added percussive harmonics - a cool little banjo trick - and turned his instrument's tuning pegs to change the notes as he played them. Never breaking the constant flow of the rolling notes.
That was as advanced as it got, really. While the two were playing, especially on the old-time fiddle tunes, the music's Celtic roots were blissfully obvious. The uptempo numbers danced a sunny morning jig, in a grassy green field in springtime.
Molsky played fiddle and simultaneously sang a haunting ballad about a 19th century shipwreck off the eastern coast of Australia.
They played square dance tunes ("Texas Gals"), and straight-ahead bluegrass (Shakin' the Acorn") so pure and stirring that I don't care if I ever hear a full bluegrass contingent (guitar, bass, mandolin and whatever else) again.
Washburn's opening set was a lovely amalgam of indie folk-slash-bluegrass and flourishes of the Chinese folk music motifs she has long championed.
She is a lovely singer, and an engaging stage presence (at one point, Washburn actually spoke these words: "Those seven guys were the entire Chinese population of Montpelier, Vermont"). Washburn was accompanied by the versatile Kai Welch on acoustic guitar, keyboards, trumpet (!) and harmony vocals.
Many of the duo's tunes relied on a delay process - Welch would create a keyboard loop, or one with his voice, then another and another until there was a big sonic wash for him, and Washburn, to sing and play live with.
It was evocative, it was innovative, and (especially with the lonesome trumpet notes Welch sometimes added) exceptionally beautiful.
Me, I prefer acoustic simplicity.
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