Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bluegrass in the city...

The sky was clear, a quarter moon shining on the snow below. The stars of Orion glistened from above. The air was beyond crisp, it froze your breath as soon as you exhaled. The Grant Avenue Studio is in the centre of town, on a quiet residential street. The street is narrow, and residents use any available parking spot. I ended up in a grocery store lot two blocks away, which explains my familiarity with the weather. I wasn't sure what to expect. This was the recording studio that Daniel Lanois started. U2, Eno, Yoko Ono, John Cage, Raffi, Gordon Lightfoot had all recorded here. But tonight it was home to an intimate bluegrass concert. Only fifteen guests on a cold dark night.

Inside the door the hostess greeted us with a kiss and checked our names on the guestlist. We were a bit early and toured the facility. The performers were sequestered in a room upstairs that houses the studio's vast instrument collection. You could hear them pickin'. The walls were lined with framed CDs, even LPs, and posters from the artists who had recorded in these rooms. There was a sense that something extraordinary was about to take place. And sure enough it did.

There were a few stools and chairs, a piano bench or two, set out for guests to sit on, and one microphone standing in the middle of the room. A music stand held two pages marked in an almost indecipherable script "set 1" and "set 2". The songs were listed, and if you tried really hard you could recognize a title or two. Joe Clark's mandolin case was over in the corner. I recognized it, having seen it before. It is covered with stickers from a career's worth of bluegrass festivals, and tours. Don Rigsby's instrument was perched in its case on top of the grand piano. And on the floor in its case was Joe's poor old guitar, victim of a house fire, sound hole enlarged by a a Dremel tool. Instruments look so lonely sitting unused. But when Don and Joe entered the room, and picked up the guitar and mandolin, and started to play, the instruments sprang to life.

What a concert! Two 50 minute sets which wandered through the whole history of bluegrass. Joe and Don traded lead vocals, they harmonized with that high lonesome sound that identifies bluegrass. Then they traded solos. Don on mandolin, then Joe on guitar, maybe Don would take two verses, or Joe would, but somehow, magically they ended together with a flourish. Whether singing new songs steeped in the tradition, or paying tribute to the Stanley Brothers, or Tex Ritter, or Clarence White, or the master of them all Bill Monroe, they played beautifully. Fingers flying over the fretboards, their mouths moving, feet tapping, and the audience gasping at the precision of it all.

They traded instruments, Don played guitar and Joe mandolin; then Don played fiddle while Joe brought out the banjo. They brought tears to the eyes of a couple of the ladies with a gorgeous version of "Kentucky Waltz". They brought laughs when they had to start "Cannonball Blues" three times, once when Joe broke a string, then again when Don missed a chord. "Missin' a note is one thang, but missin' a whole chord..." "Well...it happens to the best of us!"

Intimate. Cozy. It was like listening to live music in somebody's living room. And the sound was fantastic. They're playing a couple of house concerts, a club gig and a theatre show on the weekend. But none of them will be as special as this night. Recorded for posterity, and a radio show, I can't wait to hear it again. These fellas are masters of their craft. I feel honoured to have been there!

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