Postscript to this review, October 1, 2002:
I've posted this review in honor of Noam Pikelny's new job as the banjoist for Leftover Salmon. Tim Dishman is currently the bassist for Special Consensus, and Casey Driessen is now leading his own band, Wise Child, when not on the road with Chris Jones, Tim O'Brien or Mark Schatz & Friends.
Last weekend, Mama Java’s in Evanston presented a band made up of four precocious teenagers. What was unusual was that they did not crank guitar amps to ear-bleed levels, or feature a drum solo, but instead took their best shots at the virtuoso demands of bluegrass.
Minor Bluegrass is lead by local fiddle and mandolin sensation Casey Driessen, a substantial talent who should make an impact on the national scene. An aggressive fiddler, Driessen is adept at alternating long, complex lines with stabbing shards of sound in a convincing and compelling manner. He is at home with both traditional bluegrass tunes like “Blackberry Blossom,” and jazzy numbers.
While Driessen is the group’s best player, the others possess enough strengths that they should have bright musical futures.
Banjoist Noam Pikelny, a high school freshman beginning this week, seems most comfortable with classic material like “Bugle Call Rag,” but does not shy away from tackling more modern finger-stretchers like Bela Fleck’s “Whitewater.”
As the evening progressed, he seemed to simultaneously relax and warm up, reaching a peak on a burning rendition of “Shenandoah Valley Breakdown.”
Bassist Jason Littlefield and guitarist Tim Dishman spent most of their time providing the band’s rhythmic foundation, but when they took their turns at soloing, they did so with some style.
Vocally, the group is uneven. Some songs, like “Life Is Like a Mountain Railway,” never quite gelled, while others such as “Walls of Time,” which featured Dishman and Pikelny, sounded quite good, with the song’s essential darkness emerging intact.
Though Minor Bluegrass lacks the essential rhythmic sturdiness that marks the best professional groups, one must also remember that they are playing without that ultimate Band-Aid, the drums. Bluegrass is as exposed a musical genre as any. That these players have chosen to excel in this tough style makes one willing to forgive imperfections.