By Mike Finkelstein
The David Grisman Sextet rambled through a CAP UCLA performance at Royce Hall on Friday night, playing to a warm and delighted reception from a smaller than anticipated crowd. Still, it was a hugely satisfying night of music with none other than David Lindley opening up the festivities.
Both Grisman and Lindley are good friends, of the same basic hippie vintage, and are longtime keepers of the flame for mastery of their acoustic instruments and fine original acoustic performance. You can also sense, in their long gray hair and beards, as well as their repartee with the audience, that both have retained their hippie personae. And it certainly is captivating and reaffirming to see someone so completely in control of their instrument as both men were on Friday night.
There was enough room in Royce that the promoters invited the audience to come as close to the stage as they needed to get the right spot. And the open space wasn’t only limited to the stage. There were small and few amplifiers, a small drum kit, flutes resting on a piano bench. Much of the stage was peripherally left bare and there was no backdrop. It gave a very stripped down feel to the evening but the music was well suited to the setup.
Programs like CAP UCLA (Center for the Art of Performance UCLA, formerly UCLA Live) specialize in presenting performers –such as David Grisman and David Lindley — who depend on subtle acoustic nuances to make the connection with an audience. Royce Hall is one of the calmest sounding big halls you’ll ever hear a performance in. At times Friday, you could literally hear a pin drop … or hear a pick rub each wind of a mandolin string. Remarkable. So when Grisman and his five band mates hit the stage they were in their element and beaming gleefully.
Grisman’s band consisted of mandolin (Grisman, himself), acoustic bass (Jim Kerwin), guitar (Grant Gordy), fiddle (Mike Barnett), drums (George Marsh) and flute (Matt Eakle). Basically he took the string foundation of bluegrass music, minus the banjo and, because there is a lot of traditional jazz in his original material, he added flute, too. His compositions are very chordy but structured and directional. You couls hear quite a bit of the Django Reinhardt/Stephan Grappelli influence in many of their arrangements — such as “Bluegrass at the Beach.” The music was structured like traditional jazz but played on bluegrass instruments.
What really impressed was the way the band swatted around the musical focus between them like it was a game of hacky-sack, with Grisman presiding and nodding intensely every turn of the way. Each player came alive when it was his turn to step out in front and solo.
Grisman himself would lurch into and out of his runs with flying fingers. It’s quite entertaining to watch a large guy like Grisman work the neck of a little ol’ mandolin like it was a toy.
Gordy flatpicked superbly, and Eakle had a way of grooving to the music and prancing with his flute that at times suggested Ian Anderson. He also had several great tonal moments with a massive bass flute that lay in waiting on the piano bench.
The rhythm section of Kerwin and Marsh has been with Grisman for more than twenty years and their comfort with the format really showed. Though their solos were not long, they were melodically meshed with the tune and they always featured tasty dynamics, and contrasted speeds and volumes. Every player in the band had the sort of soft touch to go with the speed that gives the best acoustic music its appeal. And they all appeared to be enjoying the moments big-time.
Grisman told several small stories during the evening as he provided personal background and culled songs from a career that now spans five decades. He alluded to the now old school practice of learning one’s instruments from a.) buying and listening to vinyl records and b.) watching people play live to steal their techniques. Now, instructional videos on the internet make it all so available. But seeing the process through organically makes a person that much more connected to the music. Grisman learned all he could from Bill Monroe in person and from records and he recounted to us that Monroe eventually implored him to work up his own style, which we now know as “Dawg music.” It turns out to have been sage advice.
David Lindley opened the show with a 45-minute set of deadpan humor and downright amazing playing on stringed instruments ranging from lap guitars to a proper lute. These instruments were all tuned to beautiful open chords and with a slide in his hands they sounded huge and simply majestic at times.
There was one tune about the virtues and tangential possibilities of Excedrin and Lindley ended his set with a jaw-dropping instrumental workout in which he played gritty, hot shot, country blues on a lute! It made one wonder whether some unknown folks — back in the day when the lute was in its prime — might also have figured out how to make the thing talk this way. We may never know, but Lindley surely proved it can be done.
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Photos courtesy of CAP UCLA.