David Royko Psy.D

Tony Rice, Mike Marshall, Darol Anger and Todd Phillips

Sunday, December 2, 2001
Music Review: Tony Rice, Mike Marshall, Darol Anger and Todd Phillips at the Old Town School of Folk Music

Rice, Marshall, Anger and Phillips Start With Bluegrass, Then Move On
By David Royko

With the subtlety of a classical chamber ensemble, the improvisational give and take of a jazz group, and the energy and thrust of a bluegrass band, the quartet that performed Friday night at the Old Town School of Folk Music did not simply blur boundaries, they made a mockery of such constraining categorizations.

Considering the personnel, anything less would have been a shock.

Guitarist Tony Rice, mandolinist Mike Marshall, violinist Darol Anger, and bassist Todd Phillips have spent a quarter century not following but creating trends, sometimes with each other, but often apart.

If one added David Grisman to the band, it would be the classic quintet that defined "Dawg Music" in the 1970s. Since then, Marshall, Anger and Phillips have worked together off and on, but what made Friday's show truly special was hearing Rice in this context again.

For two decades, Rice has been the most important guitarist to play in the bluegrass mold, though he has never limited himself to any one form. With a style founded upon the harmonic and rhythmic innovations of the late guitarist Clarence White, Rice has spent his life exploring the links between seemingly disparate styles of music.

His solo on "Scotch and Swing" Friday found him stretching the rhythm like a bungee cord, somehow snapping his phrases back at the last possible moment, transforming potential disaster into musical triumph.

That sense of tension and exquisite release was evident from all members of the band, particularly in their facility for reacting to one another. Marshall and Anger, especially, seemed to share a psychic connection on their duet performances of "Limerock" and "Here Comes The Sun," which appeared to be an impromptu tribute to George Harrison, who died Thursday.

Marshall's dazzling fluidity meshed perfectly, and perhaps surprisingly, with Anger's sound. Anger melded the unadorned, soul-laid-bare vocal sound of country fiddling to a sophistication more typical of a jazz player, reminiscent in some respects of Stuff Smith.

Marshall was a wonder, his nearly matchless technique allowing his ideas to flow so freely that he appeared at times to surprise even himself by a turn of phrase or a perfect resolution to a cascade of syncopated 16th notes.

With Phillips' round and rich bass tones fleshing out the band's sound with fragments of counter-melodies, the group became almost an aural embarrassment of riches, the ear constantly drawn to the details that ultimately added up to an extraordinary whole.

The quintet, The Waybacks, opened with a set that entertained with a casual wit while remaining grounded in serious musical values. Their expertise at a range of styles kept their set intriguing, with the high point coming in an achingly beautiful treatment of Floyd Cramer's "Last Date."

[Photo: Darol Anger (left) and Tony Rice perform Friday at the Old Town School of Folk Music, where they were joined by Mike Marshall and Todd Phillips. Photo for the Tribune by Callie Lipkin.]