David Royko Psy.D

Bela Fleck and the Bluegrass Sessions Band, concert review


By David Royko

Sam Bush stood alone on Navy Pier's Skyline Stage Wednesday, chording
and chopping on his mandolin. The evening's mystery man, guitarist
Bryan Sutton--replacing the ailing Tony Rice for this leg of the tour--
joined Bush, further fleshing out the opening tune's harmonies.

Stuart Duncan followed, his fiddle sighing and moaning atop the rhythm.
Then came Jerry Douglas, with biting yet fluid dobro lines snaking
through the ever-building ensemble.

When Mark Schatz strolled out and fattened the sound with his bass
notes, the stage literally was set for banjoist Bela Fleck, who
appeared to finally introduce the melody of his original instrumental,
"Blue Mountain Hop."

Dubbed The Bluegrass Sessions Band, in reference to Fleck's new CD, and
presented by the Old Town School of Folk Music, it is the kind of
musical aggregation that hard core progressive bluegrass fans dream
about. It is also an all-star unit rarely encountered away from the
summer festival circuit, due to the various individual career demands.
It was an opportunity to be savored.

Those who are drawn to bluegrass for the hot licks were served bushels
full, with breakneck traditional numbers, such as "Wheel Hoss" and
"White House Blues," keeping the endorphins flowing. The balance of
speed, control, thrust, and coherent musical ideas the players attained
at staggering tempos was as challenging to a listener to absorb as it
was entertaining to watch.

However, bluegrass has always been as much about the blues as anything
else. That fact was underlined with the second set's long duet version
of "Sailin' Shoes/Crossroads," where Bush's vocals and "wall of sound"
mandolin , and Douglas' sliding dobro solos, allowed each to bounce
ideas off one another, building to an intensity that belied the
stripped-down instrumentation.

Another element of bluegrass notable more for what it excludes is that
no drums are allowed, and this group complied, except for one
remarkable "drum solo" bassist Schatz took, using his hands on various
body parts, trading fours and eights with Fleck's banjo and Duncan's
fiddle, elevating what would have been, in less musical hands (pardon
the pun), a novelty, to something worth listening to.

Sutton, best known for his work in Ricky Skaggs' Kentucky Thunder
bluegrass band, performed beautifully, pulling fire from his strings as
he stoked the rhythmic furnace, and spinning solos that demonstrated he
belongs on stage with such fast company.

Perhaps the most gripping moment of the night came when Bush and Fleck
were left alone on the stage after the rest of their bandmates had
disappeared one by one at show's end.

The musical rapport and twin-like phrasing, nurtured during their years
together in New Grass Revival, paid off as they locked into a
banjo/mandolin duel on Fleck's "Major Honker."