March 29, 2000
BLUEGRASS FEST IS FRESH AS A SPRING BREEZE
By David Royko
The Sixth Annual Naperville Indoor Bluegrass Music Festival, at the Naperville Holiday Inn last weekend, actually could have been held outdoors, given the unseasonably balmy breeze blowing outside the hotel. But typical bluegrass lovers are a breed that makes champion-era Bulls fans look like existentialists mired in disinterested ennui. Impervious to the elements, whether inside on a gorgeous afternoon or suffering through a two-day downpour in a muddy field, if the music is good, then life is good. And as repeat customers have come to expect, the music in Naperville was very good. The format of short sets--most around 40 minutes--in quick, punctual succession, allowed listeners to savor a variety of sounds and styles, with most of the dozen bands doing at least two sets over the course of the weekend. After a quarter century of touring, Chicago's own Special Consensus can hardly be considered a regional band, with an international following and a slow but steady revolving door of gifted musicians surrounding banjoist/leader Greg Cahill. Their Saturday afternoon set provided some of the hottest music of the day. Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver demonstrated how a staunchly traditional approach to bluegrass music can still remain fresh and alluring. As solid a bunch of pickers this incarnation of Quicksilver is, it was the pipe organ sonority of their a cappella harmonies, delivered around a single microphone, that was most moving. But it was Claire Lynch and her Front Porch String Band, perhaps more than anyone else, that showed where the music is today and, with any luck, where it will be tomorrow. Lynch possesses one of the most beautiful, expressive and downright sweet voices to emerge from the bluegrass world, and her ensemble is among the most creative and flexible units on the scene. The International Bluegrass Music Association's bassist of the year for two years running, Missy Raines drove bluegrass tunes with pumped up precision without sacrificing any of her voluptuous tone, and was equally adept at coaxing a gently rocking pulse from her bass on slower songs. Mandolinist (and husband to Claire) Larry Lynch picked his mandolin with sensitivity and creativity, his solos delighting with clear melodic ideas. Guitarist/banjoist Jim Hurst is a player with a monstrous technique on guitar, though rarely did he use it to dazzle, instead lending his talent to filling harmonic gaps with full-bodied chords and tasty--and tasteful--runs. Lynch's voice is a marvel, and nowhere was it more effectively used than on the swinging "Stranger Things Have Happened," from her new CD, "Love Light." Her band laid down an irresistible rhythmic cushion atop of which Lynch's pure tone bounced like a skipping stone over glistening waters, making one hope that the singer eventually will record an entire disc of swing tunes.