Live Bluegrass: Earl Scruggs in a UCLA Live Concert at Royce Hall

By Mike Finkelstein

Last weekend, UCLA Live presented legendary banjo picker Earl Scruggs and his band at Royce Hall in a well attended, if not sold out show.  As banjo players go, there simply hasn’t been one more influential than Scruggs throughout his long career.   Scruggs is now 87 years old and suffice it to say that he vaulted the instrument’s popularity from a mainstay in southern folk music to iconic status in bluegrass music throughout the world.    If one thinks of the most well-known banjo songs, the Beverly Hillbillies’ “Ballad of Jed Clampett,” and “Foggy Mountain breakdown” from Bonnie and Clyde usually surface very quickly.   These songs put Scruggs’ three finger banjo picking style in the ears of millions of people on a very regular basis.

After the band had walked unassumingly onstage, Scruggs and his banjo were escorted to center stage and the show began. To his right was son Randy on flat picked guitar and to his left was son Gary on electric bass, vocals, and basically doing emcee duties for the evening.   Earl Scruggs has always surrounded himself with outstanding players onstage and Saturday night’s show was no exception as his six-piece band deftly delivered the set. The band also included Grand Ole Oprey fiddler and all around journeyman Hoot Hester, longtime Scruggs drummer John Gardner, Dobro man Jimmy Stewart, and Keith Sewell on hot licks Telecaster guitar.

Earl Scruggs

At its core the bluegrass format features crisp musicianship so that each voice can be heard clearly using instruments that contrast and stand out next to each other.  In this case, the rhythm section was actually rather Spartan with Gardner using brushes on a minimalist drum kit.  The drums never got truly loud, they just nudged the band to keep the music skipping along.    The bass thudded along with a padded tone, evoking a standup bass or at times an old-time, wash-basin rig of rural origins. One could even make the case that this band had a four piece rhythm section.  The drums and bass meshed beautifully with the added tone of Randy’s acoustic guitar and Stewart’s Dobro resonator guitar.

The main soloists were Hester and Sewell and their work was remarkable.   Hester, in a perfectly fitting Western hat, carried his end of things with panache.  His fiddle work was super smooth, making quick complex runs look routine.   Electric guitarist Keith Sewell,  looking casually confident in jeans and a sport coat, was a lead player among lead players.  His lines were intricate with counter-harmonies and dazzling speed converging to wow both the guitar players and the non-players alike.   What stood out from within what Sewell put into his lines was the sheer clarity of it all.   He, too, made it look and sound disarmingly easy to be such a monster on one’s instrument while avoiding flashiness.

There is something about a well-conceived arrangement of instruments at a manageable live volume that sounds organically grand and Scruggs’ band had this working for them on Saturday night. Every song featured several instrumental breaks and as the program gathered momentum the contrast between the instruments became compelling.   In the middle of this beautiful swirl sat Earl Scruggs, picking and vamping away.   In terms of soloing, he picked his spots wisely, pacing himself without going overboard.   Not surprisingly, he really did let if fly for his signature tunes “Jed Clampett,” “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Orange Blossom Special.”

Given the talented ensemble backing him, it was a treat to anticipate which tasty cover would be next.   The entries were sometimes over a century old and at other times often familiar, coming from sources ranging between Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Blind Boy Fuller.   But one rarely gets to hear them done this way.

In a set list chock full of high points, the old Joe Maphis tune “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music),”  was a standout for its poignant description of a good friend who just cannot get out of the bar room lifestyle — a heartbreaking set of words.

   A home and little children mean nothing to you
A house filled with love and a husband that’s true
You’d rather have a drink with the first guy you meet
And the only home you know is the club down the street

“In the Pine,” a traditional tune from the mid/late 1800s, and popularized (somewhat) almost 20 years ago by Kurt Cobain, resounded as the band played up its twangy side and its rural roots.   Bob Dylan songs, too, have always lent themselves well to bluegrass arrangements and on Saturday the band went with “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”

Also noteworthy was the chance to hear “Sitting On Top Of The World,” a stoic blues standard, receive the bluegrass treatment from a band of aces.   Hester’s and Sewell’s playing over the 4-piece rhythm section peeled back another layer or two of the elegance this song presents.

Randy Scruggs and his dad appeared throughout “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” the legendary bluegrass album coordinated by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. On Saturday Randy gave us a beautiful flat-picked rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” from that collection.

All in all this gig was as much about the band as it was about Earl Scruggs but he is such an influential player that every musician onstage owed quite a bit of their own musical direction to him.  Yes, indeed.

The cleverly named local country/rock trio Merle Jagger opened the show with an impressive if short half hour set.  They came onstage looking like they might have unloaded their gear from a hay wagon, and the bass player’s cabinet had most of its vinyl siding peeling away from the wood. No matter, their music is all-instrumental, featuring long unison and counter-harmonic scalar runs between bass and guitar.  Stephen Andrews’ style, in particular, on a vintage P-bass was buttery smooth and quick, a savory mix of tone and technique.  Their instrumental approach is appealing but their lines are catchy enough to beg for a vocal above them.   Just wondering about that…

Photo courtesy of Nashville Portraits.

To read other reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

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