By Mike Finkelstein
Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby brought their bluegrass collaboration to a CAP UCLA concert at Royce Hall on Friday night, playing to a very appreciative if not overflowing crowd. Backed by the amazing six-piece Kentucky Thunder bluegrass band, Skaggs and Hornsby took on music ranging from Bill Monroe to Rick James.
At first notice the pairing of Hornsby and Skaggs seems a little odd, a pop figure and a country/bluegrass guy teaming up. But upon further inspection we see that Skaggs is from rural Kentucky and Hornsby from Virginia. Their common geography indicates why both of these guys grew up with a huge love and respect for bluegrass music. Bluegrass originated in that region of the country under the influence of one Bill Monroe. Skaggs and Hornsby both soaked it up from the beginning. While Skaggs took a path true to his roots as a bluegrass musician, Hornsby branched out into jazz, blues, and rock ‘n roll while maintaining his love for bluegrass. Their trains crossed in 2000 while they were recording a tribute album of Bill Monroe’s music, Darlin’ Cory.
Most folks west of the Mississippi would first know of Bruce Hornsby through his enormous popularity as a solo artist in the late 1980’s as well as his work with the Grateful Dead family, Don Henley, and Spike Lee. He is a remarkably versatile pianist and he hails from Virginia, where many musical styles coexist and cross-pollinate, he incorporated everything he liked the sound of into his style.
Ricky Skaggs is a bona fide country music and bluegrass icon in his own right. He has played with luminaries ranging from Bill Monroe to Dave Brubeck to Brian Setzer, and has dozens upon dozens of hit singles and industry awards. Skaggs has a tremendous, yet charismatically down to earth onstage presence. But the bottom line is that he can plain burn it up on the mandolin.
It’s not surprising that these two top-shelf players with gregarious musical instincts and unlimited ability would pool their talents. It’s also not surprising that they would enlist a group of top shelf players to flesh things out. Their presentation was a warm night of concise but winsome story-telling and impressive musicianship. As the show progressed we became more and more impressed with the musicianship of fiddler Andy Leftwich, multi instrumentalist (banjo and dobro) Justin Moses, and flat-picking monster guitarist, Cody Kilby. Several times, Kilby’s high speed runs summoned up an image of sparks between the strings and the frets.
Most of all on Friday, stompin’ bluegrass was only the departure point. With the instrumentation and song selection, the evening evolved into much more than that. For an eight-piece ensemble playing a style of music that often moves at a fast pace it was curious indeed that there was no percussion onstage , save for the piano.
There were, however, a whole lotta strings up there. Not by accident, the picked attack of 4 guitars, banjo, fiddle and the thump of one bass cleanly suggested snares and toms. As he sang, Skaggs would vamp his strings quickly to clarify the skipping snare effect. This is the sort of detail that an old pro like Skaggs throws in routinely to pick the arrangement up a notch or two and it’s simple beauty.
Bluegrass music has always delivered the goods for showcasing hot pickers of banjoes, mandolins, and guitars alike. On Friday there were 3 guitars (at times 4), a mandolin, a banjo, a fiddle, a bass, and a piano. To the left there was the rhythm section consisting of two rhythm guitars, and bass. To the right were the soloists on fiddle, guitar, and banjo. And holding court at center stage we had Skaggs on mandolin and Hornsby seated behind the grand piano. From this area came the stories and the cues.
Hornsby’s piano was the game changer and the agent of change for this group. Presenting musical avenues like an octopus at center stage, Hornsby served up a banquet table of atmosphere and harmony for the guys to work with above and underneath him. While the Kentucky Thunder feature ace players, Hornsby’s clever and somewhat jazzy meanderings opened up the sound and drove the group at a refreshingly different angle on the standards and covers they played.
While still instantly recognizable, Rick James’ “Superfreak,” was given a very entertaining bluegrass makeover. The treatment featured a twangier bounce to the bottom end riff and the tasty stringed interplay above.
If we didn’t realize it then, we certainly know now that Hornsby’s mega hit from the 80’s, “The Way It Is,” has a superb set of chord changes for everyone to stretch out over, and melodically so. The jam went on for several very satisfying minutes and could have even gone longer without losing steam.
There were also moments of haunting Celtic inspired harmony in songs like “Darlin’ Cory,” as well as light lyrical playfulness in “The Dreaded Spoon,” ( a wistful Hornsby tune about going to the Dairy Queen with his dad as a kid).
On “Columbus Stockade,” a pretty standard bluegrass piece, bassist Scott Mulvahill was allowed a solo spot to shine in the style of jazz bassist Charlie Haden. The ease with which this band weaved the juxtaposed styles together was nothing short of great.
It must be noted, too, that Royce Hall is beautifully suited for the sound of a large acoustic ensemble. The ambience in the place was remarkable Friday, with the soft acoustic sounds so powerfully layered and so neatly mixed that we could easily focus in on the different instruments. The sound was crisp enough to actually hear fingers vigorously pounding the fingerboard. In addition to the clear sound, the music itself swelled and contracted for a fine sense of dynamics. It turned out to be a most impressive musical tapestry that Skaggs, Hornsby and the Kentucky Thunder weave. Play on, gents!
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