Tuesday, October 24, 2000
A Bluegrass review
Players Explore Outer Limits at Fanfest Extravaganza
By David Royko
Special to the Tribune
LOUISVILLE In a weekend of around-the-clock performances, nothing personified
the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual FanFest better
than two numbers delivered late Friday night by the Swiss band, the
Kruger Brothers, and their young guest mandolinist, Chris Thile.
The technical skills of Thile and the Krugers--banjoist Jens in
particular--are so staggering the most common reactions are incredulous
laughter from fans and despondently envious tears from fellow pickers.
That their techniques are secondary to their equally abundant creativity
made them a perfect match, whether melodically caressing the Stephen
Foster ballad "Hard Times" or dashing through "Bill Cheatham" with
blinding speed and delicacy matched only by the wings of
That IBMA provided the ideal atmosphere for a collaboration
between some of the greatest non-U.S. bluegrass minds, with Thile, one
of the brightest lights for the future of music of any type, illustrates
IBMA's ability to celebrate bluegrass and assist in moving it forward.
Of course, the Del McCoury Band's excellence was more expected--assumed,
even--but their elegantly energized Friday set was no less precious for
that. The powerhouse McCoury ensemble, lead by Del's voice, the greatest
set of "high lonesome" pipes in the business, built out from the core of
Ronnie McCoury's blues-drenched mandolin work, as fiddler Jason Carter
and banjoist Rob McCoury played musical leapfrog over and around bassist
The McCourys proved they are not only one of the best bluegrass
bands now, but ever. The Saturday afternoon duet of banjoist Mark
Johnson and guitarist/mandolinist/singer Emory Lester simultaneously
glanced back and ahead. Johnson has refined his "clawgrass" concept of
grafting the older, pre-bluegrass claw-hammer method of banjo picking
with a more modern sensibility, to the point where one forgets the
means, only hearing the musical end.
His partner's playing dovetailed perfectly into Johnson's, exposing
Lester's love and knowledge of the tradition with his natural
inclination for newgrass. Crucial Smith stands at the top of bluegrass'
wild-child genre. Their set Friday demonstrated the maturation of
composing and execution that should put them in demand for summer
Banjoist Alison Brown brought drums and keyboards--bluegrass
taboos--to the main stage Friday, with exquisite results. Her quartet's
crisp approach to jazz highlighted Brown's engaging compositions and
witty improvising style.
Saturday afternoon's duo of Czech native Slavek Hanzlik (guitar) and
Skokie native Noam Pikelny (banjo) featured compositions by Hanzlik that
betray no nationality, instead making their statements in the most
universal terms--beauty and depth of emotional expression. Pikelny has
developed into a player with the skills and imagination needed to enter
and enhance Hanzlik's evocative tunes.