Monday, March 10, 2003

Rowan and Rice strange bluegrass bedfellows

Concert review

By Chris Varias
The Cincinnati Enquirer

One guy is a Southwestern mystic by way of New England with impeccable bluegrass credentials. The other ranks with the world's finest flat-picking guitar players.

Together, Peter Rowan and Tony Rice form an interesting duo as far as veteran acoustic projects go. Friday the pair played the Southgate House before a sellout crowd who were captivated by what was for them a quiet musical thrill ride, a ride over the Texas plains, through the Virginia hills and amid those spaced-out mindscapes sketched in a marijuana anthem or two.

Their two-hour performance featured Rowan on vocals and rhythm guitar and Rice handling most all of the solos. Rowan soloed a few times, too. His jagged and stuttering Tex-Mex-influenced style offered contrast to Rice's fluid, technically perfect playing.

Rowan, a Boston native who sang tenor and played guitar for Bill Monroe, twice made reference to being in the land of bluegrass. Perhaps this compelled the duo to perform Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and the Stanley Brothers' gospel ballad "White Dove," two highlights of the first set.

The second set began with "Come Back to Old Santa Fe," which presented a sort of along-the-border feel that carried through to the end of the show. It was interrupted once in the middle of the set, when Rowan exited the stage and Rice played a long instrumental medley that had the room silent in guitar-geek awe.

Rice's exhibition was, in turn, interrupted when he dropped his pick and had to dig out another one from his pocket.

"That's the first time in about 10 years that I dropped a flat pick," Rice told the cheering crowd at the end of the song.

Besides the Rice spotlight, the audience's two favorite moments were probably the stoner tunes. Rowan and Rice got Rowan's most famous song - "Panama Red," a thinly veiled homage to a potent strain of marijuana - out of the way early in the first set after many people were calling for it from the start, while "Free Mexican Air Force" closed the show.

Opener William Lee Ellis is a country-blues revivalist from Memphis. His set ranged from obvious material like Robert Johnson's "Love In Vain" to an unexpected take on Chuck Berry's "Maybellene" made to fit his style.


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