Well, I don't really know where to begin. Okay, let me say that I heard one of the best nights of music in recent memory in the unlikeliest venue imaginable last night.
I don't plan ahead for much, so when my friend Tam called to see if I wanted to make a two hour drive to Bristol (that's in England) to hear Uncle Earl ( http://www.uncleearl.net/
) I was sort of heming and hawing, you know. Seemed a long way to go just for a show (I'm spoiled by hearing so many great shows in America during the summer months). But then....well, I do love the music of Uncle Earl (the g'Earls) and I haven't seen Tam since the spring, so I said yes. After that I spent my time worrying about the weather since we had several inches of snow in the interim, then it got warmer and a very thick fog set in. Try to drive in that! HUH! Nearly wrecked on the way home last night. But that's later in the story.
So Tam and I headed off around 5 pm over the lovely and treacherous Hay Bluff (overlooking the fair town of Hay-on-Wye with its flocks of sheep and free-range Welsh mountain ponies. The fog was thick and getting thicker as we climbed up over the Gospel Pass (incomparable beauty) and inched down the one lane road for miles and miles through heavy rain now coupled with thick fog - in the utter darkness of late November in Wales. We passed the incredible spot that is Capel-y-Ffin and then Llanthony Priory and after what seemed like days we crawled to the outskirts of Abergavenny. It was somewhere there that my attention began to run off like the rain that poured down the windscreen and into the rain-slicked motorways we'd begun to traverse. Now for all the dangers inherent in crossing open moorland in total fog conditions at night it still seemed a more pleasant task than driving on these motorways with mad (as in crazy) drivers speeding by at 80 mph as we tried to avoid hydroplaning into another lane. We talked and talked about Uncle Earl, their latest recording, their amazing video I saw online yesterday through the Bluegrass Blog, and about a million other topics. Tam reckoned Rayna Gellert, her voice and her fiddle, were what she most wanted to hear. I was keen to hear them all, and especially to GET there already.
Well, we weren't quite sure where to go. As much as I love the UK and don't mind the death-defying drives I make daily down these one lane roads around blind curves with ten foot high hedges encroaching directly on either side, and perhaps a two foot deep ditch on one side, I sure do hate driving in cities. First of all, the roundabouts are a different language altogether and I find them the most unnavigable aspect of the UK. When I successfully negotiate a city roundabout I want to pull over, drop down on my knees and thank God. You may think I'm exaggerating but you come over here and try them yourself.
First of all you must have the map of the UK memorized in its most minute detail to even know which of the six exits you should take as you try to aim your vehicle off the durned roundabout. And then...which lane should you be in -- officially? Damn, I can never figure that out AT ALL. Now we finally make it, by some miracle, to Bristol. We left with plenty of time, but hadn't taken into account the doughy fog we had to fight our way through, nor the heavy rain. Still, we got off the M5 and onto the A-something or other. At the junction where we exited there was a massive city roundabout and it was CLOGGED with traffic, all 100 lanes of it. There were lights. And Tam pulled right out in front of someone. First time I've heard a horn in weeks, LOL...we were in a city for sure. Then we discovered we were going the wrong direction (we thought) and had to turn around. Not so easy to do. By now it's about 7:00 and the show is at 7:30. Traffic is bumper-to-bumper and I mean it. For miles. What's that about? Well, we got turned around, stopped for directions and learned we were several miles from our destination, and then inched along (in much the same way we had up over the Gospel Pass hours before, but this time the sheep and horses were replaced with Fish Bars and Indian takeaways. Hmmpppf.
Okay, at last we found our turn and were within blocks of St. Bonaventure's Club in Bristol. We missed another turn, but finally made it into the parking lot. It was pouring rain. In the door we found quite a crowd assembled there and fortunately we hadn't missed a thing. We got out our 12 pounds each (I think that's roughly $24) and paid our way in. Our friend Francis was there at the door; he'd come down from Bromyard or some other Godforsaken place in England. It pains me to admit it but he is one witty chap with one of those droll public school ways of talking.
As we stood waiting to gain entry to the room where the show was being held, a man walked up to the organiser and began complaining about paying 12 quid and then having to stand up all night. I'm thinking cool!!!! Standing Room Only. Well, it sure was, though not in the way I'd envisioned. We entered to find a smallish room with a bar at the far side (they do like their drinking here in the UK) which seemed quite lively. The stage took up part of another wall and otherwise there were just a few banquette-type seats along the very edges. Right in front of the stage was a small dance floor and I found myself wondering if anyone would dance....couldn't imagine the Brits losing their reserve, despite the energy and drive a g'Earls show. Well, as it turned out nobody in the audience did dance, but they might have wanted to! The Standing Room Only crowd was jammed in there so tightly that they would have had to wiggle in place at best. The dance floor ended up being covered by people who'd elected to SIT there. I stood (against my better judgment) directly in front of one of the speakers. I had a good view but it was a little painful at times (the volume, not the singing or picking).
Anyway, I said all that to say this. Turns out there was an entire delegation from the Sore Fingers Summer School ( http://www.sorefingers.co.uk/
) there with the Cap'n and Cruella at the helm. It's funny how the bluegrass and old time communities in the UK are much the same as those in the USA - you go somewhere you think is far away and expect not to see anyone you know and end up knowing bunches of people.
In the hall as we came in the g'Earls already had their merc (mercantile) set up. They are savvy business folks it seems since they had quite a nice range of offerings for sale - glitter!!! badges (Uncle Earl pins), very cool caps, and several of the individuals as well as the band as a whole had CDs for sale. And there selling them was the sweetest, friendliest guy...gee, I didn't recognize him at first since he'd shorn his long locks for a shorter style....Chris Eldredge (sp?), formerly guitarist of the Stringdusters (and still the son of the Seldom Scene's banjoist, Ben Eldredge), who's now playing with Chris Thile! He was really nice to everyone who walked up asking about the various CDs...more on Chris later! We made our way into this small, squarish room that was already heaving with people -- and more than a little hot -- and it wasn't long before the opening act came on...to my surprise I looked up to find two lovely
young women (18-year-old twins to be exact) -- the Carrivick Sisters, Charlotte and Laura. I met these girls a few years back at Sore Fingers. I was impressed then yet unprepared for the way I felt when I heard them last night.....they'd matured so much (of course) and gone from two sweet girls who sang nice duets to a couple of young women who have the vocals and the chops to go a long, long way! I was particularly impressed with their harmonies and some of their original songs. They have that exquisite British humour and aren't afraid to use it! Though they list Alison Krauss as an influence it is clear that they aren't trying to sing like her and come up with a sound uniquely their own. I found myself thinking that Charlotte reminded me of a very young Emmylou Harris. Besides their original songs I particularly liked their delivery of "Wagoner's Lad." Charlotte tends to sing the lead vocals and Laura's tenor singing is not to be overlooked! And they're really hoping some festival promoters in America will hire them to play there during their July 2008 tour.
After a short break, the five g'Earls took the stage. While it seemed like there was a greater number of men in the audience (gee, wonder why?) the women were well-represented. I spied Kate Lissauer leaned up against the wall. And Nick Pilley and Claire were right there next to me. Claire actually managed to get a foot onto the dance floor (she's an excellent clogger) but alas! During the regular show she never got to deliver her goods. They opened with "I Wish I Had My Time Again," a song John Hartford often sang. I was impressed that the audience seemed quite knowledgeable about the g'Earls repertoire and certainly responsive to their selection of songs and tunes!
One of the things I noticed first is how wonderful K.C. Groves is looking. I first met her many years ago in Louisville at one of the IBMA conventions. She was over in a corner singing her heart out with my old Portsmouth New Hampshire buddy Harvey Reid, guitarist and wrestler extraordinaire. He was once a neighbor of mine and a fixture on the NH music scene. And I knew she was a good friend of my Nashville pal Matt Combs (superb fiddler and good guy). So I knew a good bit about KC when I first met her. Then I heard Uncle Earl when they debuted at IBMA maybe 3 years ago? I think it was in Nashville and I remember hearing KC and Abigail in that aggregation though some of the other faces have changed. Anyway last night KC was up on stage just GLOWING (and I got thinking, I reckon this girl is in love, LOL)...gee, she looked great wearing a nice pleated wool miniskirt and sparkly tights...but especially wearing that beguiling grin of hers. She couldn't seem to stop smiling and I might have a guess at what all that was about! (but I ain't tellin'); anyway KC seems to look much younger than she did years ago! How do you do that, g'Earlfriend?
Abigail was there of course with her banjo, looking all fluffed up (you gotta love that hair) and she had a kind of babydoll bedroom outfit on with tights; I guess that must be what folks are wearing nowadays (what do I know? I stay on a farm!) Anyway, all five girls exuded warmth and happiness all night and it was hard not to just grin from ear to ear watching them enjoy playing for us and listening to their nice, relaxed harmonies. Rayna caught my ear with her fiddling; that g'Earl ain't afraid to play it like a man, like she means it....I like an aggressive fiddler and she flat cut it on those A tunes! (sorry but I am horrible with names of tunes).
Now one of the g'Earls had confided to me that they found some of the crowds in the UK a bit, uh, disappointing in that they were sort of well, reserved....the g'Earls are used to pulsating crowds wherever they play in the USA.....the crowd picks up the g'Earls pulse and flows with it, dances, shouts and claps and carries on - lets their hair down. While I was sort of appalled at the fact that the SRO crowd was actually a SO (standing only) crowd for the most part (and we stood for 3.5 hours!!!) I think that actually worked in the g'Earls favor (and ultimately the crowd's too) because what happened is the room was so small (or the crowd that big - I'm just guessing here but I reckon there were 200 folks in there) that we were ALL just right up there close enough that we could nearly touch the girls. I was inches away from the speakers and maybe 8 feet from the mic stands. So rather than playing to a crowd that's out there in the darkness where you can't really see faces or make a personal connection the girls had the luxury of seeing about 200 Brits up close and personal. And those folks were lapping up the music like a bunch of cats around a saucer of milk.
This venue was the social hall of a Catholic church and I can't say there was a lot of ambiance, but the crowd being in such close proximity to the band and the band all jazzed up from a great tour and the prospect of heading home with a lot fewer CDs than they'd arrived with all added up to a magical evening of music and a lot of love flowing from the g'Earls to the responsive audience and back again. The g'Earls are nothing if they're not warm and down-to-earth and though I know some of them a little in real life I stood there swaying and listening and wishing that we were all just best buddies and lived real close to each other and got together to jam on a regular basis. I expect I wasn't the only one in the crowd wishing along those lines.
Now this room packed with all these warm bodies and a band that was giving it all to the music added up to a large sum that caused Rayna to say, "We'd like to thank you all for our first moment of being WARM since we've been over here...it's like a sauna." She then went on to introduce a song about drinking along the lines of "the only thing I did wrong was take that first sip of corn," a smile washing over her face as she steps to the mic and launches into a powerful fiddle break. It isn't long before Abigail holds the room in her hand as she delivers her "Warfare..." that has to earn the prize for the most powerful song of the evening, despite some stiff competition! Her voice coupled with just the drone of Rayna's fiddle as the song unfolded revealed an ethereal, ancient sound that had the audience spellbound and silent. I don't think anyone breathed for several minutes...that a capela with drone....shivers, slicing through the palpable heat of the room like a cold knife. I look around and folks are swaying, eyes closed and blissful.
As "Warfare" rolls on the folks are bobbing, weaving, the groove picks up and KC tenors her. KC is looking in an intense yet dreamy way toward the back of the room with those huge blue eyes wide and smiling some special kind of smile and I feel happy for whatever is giving her that joy. "My warfare will soon be ended and I am goin home." Without hardly a beat they spiral into a snappy fiddle tune and I find myself enjoying the spectacle of KC and Rayna playing off each other. Kristin steps up and dances one and Rayna, paying tribute to the oven-like temperature of the room says, "How's it goin' shall we start passing around the oxygen tanks?" Somehow KC notices a couple of seats in a corner and then laughs at herself saying, "that's what you get when you have a band full of women - we all want to take care of everybody."
Now I've got to tell you about this bunch of women. I've heard them a few times but never this close up and well, personal-like. There's no two ways about it. They just live and breathe the music they are playing and singing and it is CONTAGIOUS! I've been here in the UK for about six years now and I know how reserved these folks over here can be. They had these folks swingin' and swayin' and grinning like I've hardly ever seen anywhere. I am totally serious. I think the g'Earls probably changed some lives last night in a good way! And one of the things that really impressed me about them besides the great attitude, presence, singing and picking was the versatility displayed by these remarkable young women. Because I don't really know her, I'd never paid a lot of attention to Kristin, for example, but how could that be? She sings like I can only dream about, she picks several instruments well, and she's just cool - great stage patter and so forth. The only g'Earl I didn't get a lot of a sense of was the bass player who is quite new to the band and stands in the back a good bit of the time -- but don't get me wrong, she is a lovely lady and holds down the job well and does her bit, too....
It was cool to hear Kristin take a break on the harmonica. Gee, I can't think when I've even heard a woman play harp onstage but it certainly has been a good long while! They do "High Up in the Mountains," and Rayna confides, "A lot of people call us a bluegrass band but we actually play Appalachain old time string band music." While Kristin mostly plays guitar in the band (and does a good share of the lead singing) she picks up a fiddle to twin with Rayna on "Sugar Babe" and sings lead as Abigail tenors her and at some point KC jumps in on high baritone. The audience is captivated and enthusiastic and if you could package the way they're all looking you'd make a fortune. It's that good.
Along comes another A tune and Kristin, quick change artist has flown over to get the banjo uke. Somewhere along the way it's break time (there's a big joke about calling the break an "interval" and interval seems to be the vocabulary word for the evening). The g'Earls tell the audience that we're in for a treat as some of their friends will now take the stage and play some more tunes. Keeping with the Interval Theme they introduce this aggregation (not a proper band) as "The Interval Band". Thankfully a few folks in the room who have not yet completely succumbed to the heat have the wits to open a few windows and there is, literally, a wave of fresh air that washes over the room. Now Chris Eldredge and his guitar step onstage and Mark Richards (from western North Carolina and also the excellent soundman for the evening) comes along with his banjo and then the MC introduces the bloke with the mandolin who's popped up for the show....none other than the producer of the g'Earls latest CD, John Paul Jones (JPJ)! Lots of the folks who were undoubtedly planning to step outside and catch some fresh air remain glued to their spots as these men ease into Cumberland Gap...you can't help but love it. Chris, after paying tribute to Jimmy Martin, sings, "Don't fall in love with me darlin', I'm a rambler," gosh he's a cutie! How could you NOT fall in love with him whatever the consequences? Oops, it's along about this time that JPJ is introduced and a buzz spreads across the crowd like brushfire. Now all this time the g'Earls have been acting like some starstruck groupies all
huddled around various corners of the stage listening to The Interval Band with zeal and glee but it must have been on the first song that the big omnidirectional silver mic that Mark was singing Cumberland Gap into decides to flop down, comical really. Well, young Abigail flies onstage (it isn't a very high platform, mind!) like some graceful ballerina in her little tights and crouches there at Mark's feet holdin the boom stand with the mic on the end up like the S
tatue of Liberty. Comical, really. At some point KC I think it is hops onstage with a magic piece of duct tape and deftly places it so it easily holds the mic in place.
KC comes up to sing Rocky Island with Mark and it is a powerful thing. Just watching the expressions of those four onstage singing and picking together...well worth that arduous drive!
Soon the Interval Band has finished and the g'Earls step back up to give us another unforgettable set of beautiful songs and hard-driving tunes. Chris and JPJ join them as they do that song about Bonaparte that's on the Waterloo Tennessee CD (sorry I don't have it and the name escapes me) -- very cool song. The g'Earls start off with this shape note sort of intro to the song and it has moss growing on it, I swear. I like songs like this. Kristin steps forward and sings with just Chris backing her up on guitar then gradually she is joined by the others - we hold our collective breath as the song and the story unfold. The audience sit firmly in the palm of the g'Earls hands.
"It sure is fun to have those boys around. They sure make some pretty noises," the g'Earls share. They do the DMP Blues and get the audience to join in and sing along. This is always a good way to connect with an audience, though of course that has been accomplished many many songs before. KC was kind enough to dedicate this song to me (thanks KC!) saying we'd met at Grey Fox a couple of years back (well, that was one of the times) and even mentioned this blog!
Somewhere along there they did "John Brown's Dream," one of my very favorite tunes, and they did a proper job of it too. If there HAD been a dance floor free I feel certain I would have been on it for that tune, camera or no! This song was gifted with twin fiddles (Rayna and Kristin again) and a funky banjo rockin' kind of rhythm. If you don't know what I'm talkin' about, then 1) go to one of the g'Earls shows in a place near you or 2) get yourself down into the woods at Clifftop WV (Appalachian Stringband Music Festival in August) next summer. They'll be there.
They do a Charlie Poole
song which KC introduces and Rayna picks up a guitar to sing, "Goodbye Booze," these guys have been on tour for two months. Only the young. It's a slow and mournful song to be sure and four of them sing on the chorus. I love KC's tasteful and melodious guitar break. Kristin steps in with the harmonica and afterward she says, "I like to see an audience sway together," (this was a dreamy kind of song). Next comes "Crayola" which is really neat and different I think - a sort of patty-cake patty-cake slip slap song with Rayna and Kristin slapping hands and Kristin doing this raptalky thing. JPJ is invited back to join on "Canary in a Coal Mine." After all this time they fina
lly introduce this new bass player; she's Laura Cortesi and every bit as lovely as the other g'Earls. Because this club is in a residential area it's a hard and fast rule that it must be quiet by 11:00 pm, so the g'Earls regretfully announce their last song "Doctor Doctor" (I glance down at the foot of the mic and see their set list...they'd planned to do another 5 songs but are obliged to cut it short). It is clear that they are very sorry they have to cut things short. They dedicated the song to Darren Crisp their road manager (there were quite a lot of funny road stories shared during the course of the evening). As the song draws to a close, they leave the stage but the audience will have none of that and there's no stopping the calls and applause until they are all back onstage and in place to do another song.
Rayna endears herself to one and all as she impishly tells the crowd, "You could've been really quiet and polite all evening but instead you weren't! You're you and we love you. We're so glad you're our last tour stop." KC goes on to say, "I'm so sorry you had to stand and it's hot but the energy in this room is contagious and it's such a great way to end a tour....so thanks!!" KC then sings a song "Now is the hour for you and I to part..." so sweet and delicate, airy, lilting...it's a slow waltz and JPJ is up there picking mandolin with them, Kristin playing the harp softly. Again they bow and grin and make for the exit and actually go out and as they say later "had the van half packed with our stuff" and it seems like though some of us are shouting and calling and clapping louder than ever that they really won't come back; there are too few keeping up the love now, maybe it's the late hour. But somehow we gain momentum and begin to join into a very loud and rhythmic clapping and they all come back once more! There'
s a huddle onstage as nobody is quite sure which song or tune to do but Rayna dictates that it must be a "D" tune and so they decide on Ida Red and bring the night to a close with that great old tune. Now Claire has been standing near me all night wiggling around sort of dancing quietly in place and the g'Earls actually invite anyone who wants to dance to come onstage (did I say that Kristin danced one earlier and she's a mighty fine dancer too?) so up goes Claire -- at last -- and I don't know if she had any idea what she was in for because they played that tune a LONG time! But she held on and represented the British people very well indeed and at some point Kristin put aside her instrument and joined her for twin dancing. Great stuff.
It seemed like it took forever for the room to empty out. All around me the folks were radiating (glowing!) joy, quite different from the vibe I was getting on the way in! There's no doubt in my mind that if the g'Earls return to the UK they aren't going to fit in a room that size again! The merc table was doing a brisk trade and after awhile the band drifted back in and began to sign autographs. I had the chance to say hello to them from their buddy Jim Nelson and they all grinned when they heard his name. Tam and I headed out into the night. We were starving but all those Fish n' Chips and takeaways were closed tight so we shared a clementine and talked all the way home. Back up over the Gospel Pass, still shrouded in fog, maybe worse than earlier (if possible!)...at one point I was certain we would drift off the road and crash over the bluff. Suddenly the figures of two horses loomed large in the murky light and we stopped just inches short of them. They weren't in any hurry to cross the road and seemed right at home with automobiles. We slid down the hill to home (Tam's) then I drove another hour to get to my place (going through fog so thick I was sure I'd never make it home....) All I can say is what seemed at first to be ridiculous (an entire roomful of folks obliged to stand up all night to hear the show) most likely made the night especially memorable, intimate, connected, and well, just wonderful. The heat and close proximity brought us all closer together for a night that we're all sure to cherish.