Druha Trava & Special Consensus at Fitzgerald's
Concert review by David Royko, Chicago Tribune, September 11, 1998
September 11, 1998
Concert Review of
DRUHA TRAVA and
By David Royko
When the quintet known as Druha Trava (translation from Czech is "Second Grass") launched into "Muleskinner Blues" to open their set Wednesday night at Fitzgerald's in Berwyn, the symmetry of dual-homage was as delicious as it was subtle. "Muleskinner" was the song bluegrass founder Bill Monroe chose in 1939 to begin his tenure at the Grand Old Opry, and three and a half decades later, a progressive bluegrass band made up largely of young and hip Monroe alumni took the name for their ground-breaking band that mixed contemporary repertoire and electric instruments with the rich loam of tradition.
In their use of electric guitar, saxophone, and electrified dobro that sometimes emulated a lap steel, Druha Trava veered closer to the Muleskinner band than the old sound of Monroe, yet never was there any doubt of either their sources of inspiration or exceptional ability at playing 'grass of any generation.
Fronted by lead singer/songwriter Robert Krestan, Druha Trava long ago attained star status in their Czech homeland, selling CDs at gold-record levels, while three of the individual members--dobroist Lubos Novotny, banjoist Lubos Malina, and Krestan--have released acclaimed solo albums.
The reason for their wide appeal, beyond their individual abilities, is an astute mix of diverse covers combined with evocative and sometimes provocative original material composed primarily by Krestan. By midpoint of their Fitzgerald's show, they hit the crowd with an almost dizzying series of engrossing performances, starting with Chick Corea's "Spain" in an arrangement refreshingly different from Bela Fleck's newgrass urtext version; "El Santo Dia," Krestan's addictively melodic original song that begins their new album, "Czechmate"; "Before The Bell Tolls," a haunting, almost tortured Krestan ballad punctuated by a brief but searing tenor sax solo by Malina; some true bluegrass represented by the standard, "On and On"; a sweet rendition of "Greensleeves" that built from an a cappella Krestan introduction; and finally the dazzling instrumental, "Skocna," taken from Bedrich Smetana's opera, The Bartered Bride.
Where another band might play up the "gee whiz" factor of such a roller coaster ride's worth of genre-bending, the force of Druha Trava's personality renders all of these styles comfortably unified. At the center of the vocal numbers is the golem-like presence, visually and aurally, of Krestan, whose raw yet accurate voice embodies the power and beauty of a thick slice of unvarnished oak.
Also performing Wednesday was Special Consensus, the Chicago-area bluegrass band lead by Greg Cahill, and currently boasting one of their strongest line-ups of the group's 24-year history. Joining Cahill and 3-year Special C veteran mandolinist Colby Maddox are vocalist/bassist Andrea Roberts and vocalist/guitarist Chris Walz.
A former member of Petticoat Junction, Roberts' sweet and tangy mezzo lends the band a keen brightness unique to this edition, which when wedded to her effervescent stage presence gives the group an appealing visual as well as musical anchor. Walz's fleet picking, driving rhythm and smooth singing allows the band to cast its net ever wider for fresh and, for a bluegrass band, surprising material.