June 17, 1995
STIERNBERG LETS MANDOLIN TAKE CONTROL
By David Duckman [David Royko]
Some guys are so good that their warm-up is better than someone else's peak performance, and the applause that greeted Don Stiernberg and John Parrott Friday night after their one soundcheck tune at the Old Town School of Folk Music attested to the quality that this pair brings to everything they touch. Stiernberg can play practically anything with strings, but for this set he stuck exclusively to the mandolin, through which his muse sings most sweetly.
The purpose of the show was to pay tribute to Stiernberg's musical mentor, the late mandolin giant and celebrated comedian, Jethro Burns. Burn's final recordings, with Stiernberg providing backup on guitar, were recently issued on the CD "Swing Low, Sweet Mandolin," and it was from this disc that the majority of the evenings songs were chosen.
Parrott's steady pulse on guitar provided Stiernberg and his mandolin with an ideal setting for his deeply melodic improvising, which was employed most fully on the gorgeous standard, "If I Had You."
During "You Win Again," Stiernberg's elastic cross-rhythms exploited the song's inherent swing, while "Fiddleobia", with its roller coaster patterns that scurry up and down the mandolin neck, drew bubbly Jesse McReynolds-style crosspicking from the mandolinist. Burns' famous chord/melody style of playing was at the center of Stiernberg's rendition of "Body and Soul," while the influence of Django Reinhardt on Stiernberg was obvious in the duo's sultry reading of "Nuage."
Jethro Burns the jokester was also present in spirit. Before launching their first number, "That's A-Plenty," Stiernberg remarked that "the next tune is very difficult, so we'd like to have our applause right now." Later, after an hysterical country version of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" elicited uproarious laughter and enthusiastic applause, Stiernberg said to Parrott, "This audience is so good, it makes me wish we had a better act."
But as Burns' Homer and Jethro routine could never quite disguise just how spectacular a player he was, the jokes and humorous reminiscences of Stiernberg's were secondary to the wit and imagination of his mandolin playing.
The second half of the show found Stiernberg joining a septet lead by Ingrid Graudins, a local singer-songwriter with an abundance of solid material, and an arresting, fluid voice. The full compliment of backing musicians, which Graudins' has dubbed "The Altogether," includes guitar, bass, drums, saxophone, cello, and harmony singer. This full yet flexible ensemble was as adept at the blues as they were with delicate ballads like the languid "Lilac House," a high point of Graudins' set.