Sam Bush is a giant. A skinny giant, maybe, but as his performance Friday night at the Old Town School of Folk Music's new Chicago Folk Center reaffirmed, his combination of extraordinary musicianship, vision and magnetic charisma elevates Bush to a plane envied by many pretenders.
Though Bush has been through the Chicago area this decade on numerous occasions, it has always been as sideman or featured guest with artists ranging from Lyle Lovett, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and Emmylou Harris. Not since 1989 and the waning days of the now-legendary New Grass Revival, which also featured Fleck, has the mandolinist/fiddler/singer played here as a leader, and the roaring reception from the crowd attested that his return was overdue.
With a quartet comprised of fellow Emmylou Harris Nash Ramblers alumni Larry Atamanuik on drums and guitarist/vocalist Jon Randall Stewart, as well as ex-New Grass Revival bassist/singer John Cowan, Bush devoured disparate musical styles like a starving man at an international smorgasbord.
As he did in the Revival days, Bush shattered preconceptions of what can and can not be done with a mandolin or a fiddle. From blues through swamp rock to reggae rhythms and bluegrass backbeats, it all managed to sound distinctive and wholly original. When an audience member, itching to hear a tune from Bush and Cowan's New Grass repertoire, hollered "Play some New Grass," Cowan responded, grinning wryly, "What do you think we're doing, pal?" As the primary architect and most visible diseminator of a genre which revels in allowing no one style to define it, Bush spins newgrass gold with any music he touches.
Bush has found the perfect percussionist in Atamanuik. In providing assertive drumming that compliments Bush's ability to emulate an entire drum set with his mandolin chops, the two danced around each tune's rhythmic structure like masters of the tango overdosing on caffeine.
To hear Cowan's high tenor voice soar atop his showpiece, "Good Woman's Love," or harmonize with Bush's fiddle in the vocalise "Crossing the Transippi," then grind down into the blues of "Mississippi Delta Time," is to understand the no-boundaries spirit that has kept him and Bush together through the years.
When Chicago area mandolin wizard Don Stiernberg joined the band for an energized run across the jazz classic, "Broadway," it served as a moving tribute to their shared mentor and mandolin hero, Jethro Burns