Psychograss members bring it all together
Several years ago, mandolinist Mike Marshall and fiddler Darol Anger appeared as a duo at the Wheeler Opera House’s Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music and at the JamGrass festival on Aspen Mountain. Despite the slim numbers, at no time did the two string virtuosi seem incapable of producing abundant melody, harmony or rhythm.So what in the world happens when three more instrumental aces are added to the mix? That seems to be the question at the core of Psychograss, a supergroup that features Marshall and Anger – and banjoist Tony Trischka, bassist Todd Phillips and guitarist David Grier, all top figures in the acoustic music realm.”That’s the art of being in a band – the art of making space for everyone,” said Marshall, whose latest Aspen appearance – today to open the Wheeler’s Fifth Annual Beyond Bluegrass Festival – is as part of the quintet. “It’s just the opposite of the duo, which is trying to make two people sound like a band.”But it’s basically all the same – just playing the most wonderful music you can with the people you have.”That big picture is the same in both the Anger-Marshall Duo and Psychograss – or any of Marshall’s numerous other projects, which over the years have included the four-piece Anger-Marshall Band, the jazz combo Montreux, the chamber group the Modern Mandolin Quartet, and classical-inspired groups with bassist Edgar Meyer. But in the smaller picture, Marshall’s role changes radically from one project to the next. In the duo, Marshall plays a plethora of notes to fill up the space. In Psychograss, much of the job is taking a back seat to the other members’ solos.”The way I play mandolin is so different [in Psychograss] from the way I play in the duo,” said Marshall by phone from his home in Oakland. “You have bass and guitar providing the backbeat, so I go more open-string oriented, let the notes ring. I play more of a traditional chop style, the traditional bluegrass role for mandolin.”It’s fortunate that Psychograss was formed after most of its members had had a good bit of experience. Had the band come together when all were young and brash, the fight for musical space might have gotten ugly.”In our early 20s, it was like that,” Marshall said. “We’re old enough, finally. We’ve all been in bands, sidemen, producers, so we know what is needed for our individual parts to work together. It’s not an issue. It’s a pretty easy-going bunch.””It’s not like we have the big egos, where I’m going to take all the solos and step all over you,” added Trischka, who played with Grier in the early ’90s in the Big Dogs, from his home in New Jersey. “After playing for 40 million years, in all different contexts, we just get into the groove of it. And it’s a very happy groove.”Like many combos in the acoustic world, Psychograss was not founded with a particular musical philosophy in mind, or as a project that would consume all its members’ energies into infinity. Rather, it was about taking the opportunity to play with promising collaborators and seeing how the elements blended.”It was us picking the musicians, as these things typically go,” Marshall said. “You select the musicians and whatever they bring to the party.”The first Psychograss lineup hand-picked by Marshall and Anger in the early ’90s – a quartet including percussionist Joe Craven and bassist Phillips who, like Marshall and Anger, were members at one time of the David Grisman Quintet – resulted in a far different sound than the current quintet. That group’s eponymous debut CD, on the Windham Hill label, resembled the current Psychograss sound in name only. Marshall says the CD was “heavily overdubbed, with Joe Craven doing all these crazy percussions, and Darol and I doing multiple guitar parts.”The additions of Trischka and Grier came in the mid-’90s. The driving forces behind the reconfiguration were twofold: to play with those two pickers and see what sparks might fly, and a desire to form something akin to the standard bluegrass model that has been in place since Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys.”The latest version of the band was an attempt to do a more traditional bluegrass kind of thing. And we wanted to play with Tony Trischka,” Marshall said. “Then along came David Grier, the future of flatpicking guitar. Darol and I have always been interested in hooking up with these guys at the forefront of the instrument, and guys who also know the tradition, who have done their homework and know where the music comes from.”Familiarity with acoustic history – from Stephan Grappelli and Django Rheinhart’s Hot Club of France to Bill Monroe, David Grisman to New Grass Revival – was a key ingredient in making Psychograss work. Throwing five blistering pickers with little common ground together is a recipe for disaster. But having five players who all come from basically the same musical place has made for a smooth transition into a band. On “Live Minds,” a limited-edition live CD from a 2002 Vermont concert – the title is a take-off from their last studio album, 1996’s “Like Minds” – that mostly instrumental common ground ranges from uptempo bluegrass to swing fiddle tunes to experiments with atypical rhythms. The band is also known to put its stamp on the occasional pop tune: They have recorded Procol Harem’s “Whiter Shade of Pale,” with Tim O’Brien as guest vocalist, and Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun.” According to Marshall, Anger has been hot to work up the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” for their latest tour.”Psychograss is the phenomenal ride we can get on,” Marshall said. “The groove is so solid, everyone is coming from such similar backgrounds that it’s as easy as can be to play together. It always has that joyful ease to it. But at the same time, it’s like a sports car that can make swift turns when possible.”The other principal challenge for a band like Psychograss, aside from parceling out the musical space, is carving out time not only to perform, but to develop material. Because of their memberships in multiple projects – Grier and Phillips play in a trio with mandolinist Matt Flinner; Trischka plays solo and in an eponymous band; Anger has too many bands to keep track of – and their far-flung addresses, from California to Nashville to New Jersey, getting together for anything beyond a handful of tour dates at a time is a rarity. For most of its existence, Psychograss has been a summer-time band, playing mainly at large festivals.But Marshall said that one thing that has kept Psychograss extant is that none of the five is committed to a full-time project. So when Marshall proposed an extended session, the five convened at Phillips’ Mendecino home studio for 10 days in January of last year. Each member brought two original tunes, which the band learned and recorded.”It was like opening up a box of chocolates and tasting each one,” Marshall said. “We got an amazing assortment of material.”The album, “Now Here This,” is finished, and set for a hopeful release next month on Adventure Music, a label co-owned by Marshall that usually handles his Brazilian-leaning recordings. Psychograss hasn’t played any of the new material yet, so the Aspen audience will get a taste of a special treat: at least half of the new album will be performed for the first time at the Wheeler gig, the first of a four-show run in Colorado and Georgia.”It’s pretty hairy stuff,” said Marshall of the new tunes. “But it’s raring to go. It’s rearing its head.”The fifth annual Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music, featuring Psychograss, with Sweet Sunny South opens today at 7:30 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House.For full festival lineup, go to http://www.beyondbluegrass.com.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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