Review: Grisman picks bluegrass for Belly Up Aspen show
ASPEN – Midway through his concert last Sunday at Belly Up, David Grisman announced that he was going to play some “dawg” music – a reference to the style, a fusion of jazz, string-band, gypsy and Brazilian, that had made the mandolinist a pioneer in American acoustic music. But Grisman and his band then began picking a rhythm that was very much in line with what had been established as the theme of the evening – straight-up bluegrass.When Grisman began singing the tune, the joke became apparent: It was a song about a dog, not dawg music.The group Grisman led onto the Belly Up stage was the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience – the DGBX for short – and Grisman takes the name seriously. The concert lasted two long sets, and not for a minute of it did Grisman and company stray into dawg territory. This was a night for bluegrass – bluegrass songs, bluegrass sounds, bluegrass instruments, bluegrass harmonies, bluegrass stories. The musical connections were to age-old bluegrass pioneers like the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, not to new-school newgrassers along the lines of Sam Bush, Bla Fleck, or Grisman’s other band, the long-running, ground-breaking David Grisman Quintet.While Grisman looks like a stock version of a Talmudic scholar, his familiar beard more silvery-gray than ever, his ability to play an unadulterated brand of bluegrass is magnificent. His playing often takes off from Monroe’s “chop” style, which emphasizes the mandolin as a rhythm instrument, and gives bluegrass its recognizable drive. When he moved into lead playing, Grisman unleashed flurries of notes.It is not as broad and worldly a music as Grisman plays in his usual band. The DGQ can put a listener in mind of South America, Eastern Europe, New York City of the 1950s, and the San Francisco Bay Area (where the New Jersey-born Grisman has lived for decades). The DGBX stays in Appalachia. But their exploration of bluegrass country is thorough, ranging from fast instrumental breakdowns to murder ballads. They completely ignored the country-rock songs – the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” New Riders of the Purple Sage’s “Panama Red” – that Grisman’s ’70s band, Old & In the Way, adapted as bluegrass material. But for fans of Old & In the Way, which included a rocker-turned-banjo picker named Jerry Garcia, the DGBX did reach out with versions of “Till the End of the World Rolls Around” and “Old and in the Way.” Those songs fit well in a setlist that included such old-feeling tunes as “The Baltimore Fire,” “Dream of the Miner’s Child” and “Engine 143.”As a bandleader, too, Grisman showed how serious he is about presenting the music in a pure form. None of the band members are borrowed from the DGQ, and all of the players – guitarist Jim Nunally, banjoist Keith Little, fiddler Chad Manning, and Gene Libbea sitting in for the group’s regular bassist, David’s son Sam Grisman – seem to have been chosen for their bluegrass bona fides.Grisman doesn’t sing in the DGQ, but he takes plenty of vocal turns in the DGBX. As a lead singer, he’s decent, though hardly on the level he is as a mandolinist. As a harmony singer, sharing one microphone, old-style, with Nunally and Little, he did a fine job.At Belly Up, Grisman occasionally took a break from the music to share stories about the history of the music. While some of the names, dates and origins of the songs reached into the esoteric, and were lost on the crowd, the effect was worthwhile: here is a guy who has not merely dabbled in bluegrass, but absorbed it firstname.lastname@example.org
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