Monday, August 05, 2002

JamGrass more than just bluegrass

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        O Jerry, where art thou? JamGrass opened its national tour Friday at Riverbend, and if Jerry Garcia's spirit was around the day after what would have been his 60th birthday, it was probably there, rather than the weekend's Wisconsin reunion of his Grateful Dead mates.

        Unfortunately, it seemed many Dead Heads chose the Other Ones reunion. The JamGrass fest package by Mr. Garcia's old bluegrass buddies drew barely 4,000.

        The 10-hour show opened and closed with Dark Star Orchestra, which channels the Dead, replicating entire concerts. The cloning extends to rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton, who not only sings and plays like Bob Weir, he looks like him. As a result, even though it was the only rock band in a lineup of acoustic, bluegrass-based groups, DSO was the most traditional act there.

        The 'grass segment of JamGrass may have started out copying founder Bill Monroe, but they've long since hybridized.

        John Cowan brought a powerful, soulful voice, more influenced by Wilson Pickett than Mr. Monroe. In the '70s and '80s, he'd been lead singer of New Grass Revival.

        That band was founded by Bowling Green, Ky.'s Sam Bush, who stole the show at JamGrass with a high-energy combination of bluegrass, Southern rock and jazz.

        Two of Mr. Garcia's band mates from his '70s bluegrass group, Old & In the Way, were also on hand. Singer/guitarist Peter Rowan led a band that included guitarist Tony Rice, an alumnus of David Grisman's original quintet.

        Mr. Grisman had the closest Garcia connection, having played with the Grateful Dead, Old & In the Way and in a duo with Mr. Garcia until his death.

        The new generation was represented by Yonder Mountain String Band, a Colorado group that cut its teeth on the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, home of '90s progressive bluegrass.

        But though they provided energetic party music, Yonder Mountain lacked the old guys' soul.

        Mr. Rowan's show was both a tribute to Mr. Monroe, with whom he worked in the mid-'60s, and Old & In the Way. His style retained the “ancient tones” of Mr. Monroe's music, an intense, psychedelic lonesomeness exemplified by his “Walls of Time.”

        Unfortunately, the sound mix was terrible, all tinny mandolin and sludgy guitars. Mr. Rice, the greatest living bluegrass guitarist, was nearly inaudible.

        The Sam Bush Band had no such problems, playing at rock 'n' roll volume in a set that mixed blues, bluegrass, commercial country and Bob Marley reggae. His finale included bluegrass versions of Prince's “!999” and the Stones' “Jumpin' Jack Flash.” Somehow, he and his superb band — singer/guitarist Jon Randall, bassist Byron House and drummer Chris Brown — made it work.

        But they plugged in. The David Grisman Quintet played acoustically, amplified only by microphones. The subtlety of their intricate chamber 'grass was lost.

        Too bad, because he boasted arguably the best band of the day. Guitarist Enrique Coria played everything from bluegrass to flamenco; Joe Craven switched from fiddle to mandolin to percussion, including bongos, a plastic wastebasket and his face; Matt Eakle played flute and bass flute; bassist Jim Kerwin held it all together.

        Even worse than the day's poor sound was the fact that, while just about everyone there had played with everyone else, there was no interaction between groups. Maybe as the tour continues that'll happen. But the first JamGrass needed more jam.


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