Psychograss Sharpens Its Blade on Tradition
By David Royko
Special to the Tribune
The quintet that fanned across the stage of the Old Town School of
Folk Music Friday night was pure, traditional bluegrass in
instrumentation: mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar and bass. Any
resemblance to Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys ended there, however, as
this all-star line-up named Psychograss proceeded to twist and spin the
threads of basic bluegrass sounds into a multicolored musical fabric as
varied as the tie-dyed t-shirts covering the backs of the numerous
Deadheads in attendance.
And it is also a good bet that Bill Monroe never played Jimi
Hendrix's "Third Stone From The Sun."
Each member of Psychograss maintains a thriving solo career, which
means that opportunities to hear them together are scarce. At the core
of this collective are three alumni of the David Grisman Quintet:
mandolinist Mike Marshall, violinist Darol Anger and bassist Todd
Phillips, who have since collaborated in various other groups.
Banjoist Tony Trischka and guitarist David Grier also have played
together in a number of ensembles, such as the short-lived but
spectacular "Big Dogs."
All of these groups revel in experimenting with established forms,
while always maintaining ties to the traditional models through an
allegiance to acoustic instruments, and by exercising unfailing taste
even while striking out on the most florid improvisational flights.
Those qualities are at the center of the Psychograss sound.
Even when the group performed the bluegrass standard "Nine Pound
Hammer," Trischka, in a move typical of the banjo player who took Bela
Fleck under his avant garde wing in the 1970s, launched his solo by
steering far from the tune's tonal center before ultimately resolving
his improvisation with a flourish of triplets.
Grier's elastic rhythmic and harmonic sense resulted in solos that
twisted around the ensemble like a rubber band, expanding beyond bar-
lines and keys only to snap back at the perfect moment to dramatic
The Darol Anger-Mike Marshall Band took over for the second half of
the evening's double bill. Playing material from their 1999 CD, "Jam,"
as well as new material, the quartet succeeded in blending acoustic
strings with electric bass and drums. Drummer Aaron Johnston's ability
to maintain a perfect, pulsing rhythmic anchor without cluttering the
open string textures is as rare as it was welcome, and bass guitarist
Derek Jones was a true musical partner.
Marshall--switching between mandolin, guitar and mando-cello--and
Anger were afforded even more opportunities to stretch out in this
setting, jamming through the challenging structures of their original
tunes with almost giddy creativity.