Words by: Sarah Hagerman | Images by: Dave Jackson
Green Mountain Grass & Two High String Band :: 03.08.08 :: Ruta Maya :: Austin, TX
Talking with Green Mountain Grass manager Manny Moss about the bluegrass scene in Austin, he said, "Even though there are a lot of string bands in town, there aren't really that many bands with strong bluegrass influences getting the visibility that they might get in other music markets. In Austin, and perhaps all of Texas, if you've got a fiddle in the band, it must be bluegrass." Examining the best bluegrass band list in the Austin Chronicle's Austin Music Awards would certainly support that statement. Representing a diversity of string band acts and bluegrass bands such as the Onion Creek Crawdaddies, many of the winners fall more along the lines of incorporating bluegrass influences into a rootsy folk-rock mix ala the South Austin Jug Band. Some winners don't even identify themselves as bluegrass (White Ghost Shivers, for example, are terrific but are more of a burlesque, Prohibition-era dancehall string band). Defining genre lines is tricky territory and any band worth their salt will play around with them and grow beyond a limited, purist spectrum. Conversely, if there is a failure to recognize and support a scene being cultivated in the Hill Country, then it might continue to stay off the radar screen. In Austin the potential for a seed to flourish is exponential given the right elements. And both Green Mountain Grass and Two High String Band have those elements in abundance.
Green Mountain Grass :: 03.03.08 :: Austin, TX
After some initial difficulty finding Ruta Maya, the beer and caffeine-soaked buzz once inside the spacious, funky venue went down easy. I settled comfortably into a night with two of Austin's finest bluegrass offerings. Two High String Band took the stage first while the crowd was still shuffling around, trying to find seats in the smattering of folding chairs and tiled tables scattered around a floor that was just begging to be danced on. The band has played with Yonder Mountain String Band and Tony Trischka among others, and mandolinist Billy Bright has recorded and toured with Tony Rice and Peter Rowan. So, it's a slight head-scratcher as to why they are playing on such a small scale in their hometown. Two High's three core members - Bright, flatpicking guitarist Geoff Union and fingerpicking guitarist Brian Smith - have added Mark Rubin (bass - also from legendary bluegrass punk pioneers Bad Livers), Alan Munde (banjo) and Erik Hokkanen (fiddle) to their lineup. Hokkanen was a standout, wailing on the fiddle with a half-mad grin, enraptured and possessed with the instrument.
Tradition abounded, with Union's Whiskey Rebellion ballad "Spirit of '94" hearkening back to Woody Guthrie, while instrumentals such as "Traditional Family Breakdown" gave each member a chance to show off their picking chops. But Two High is hardly strictly an old time bluegrass act. Shades of Bela Fleck shone through in Munde's banjo playing, and the songs wandered into jam territory towards the end of the set. Bright's mandolin is the shimmering river that runs through the band's territory, veering between bluesy strumming and rockin' fast-picking, particularly during the bouncy "High on the Ohio." As their stage time was winding down with John Hartford's "You Can't Run Away From Your Feet," the slightly chilly air in Ruta Maya felt much warmer, the ice long since melted in the whiskey.
Two High String Band :: 03.03.08 :: Austin, TX
Green Mountain Grass took that heat and set Ruta Maya aflame. Their roots stretch back several years to the Champaign-Urbana, Illinois bluegrass scene, but they've planted themselves firmly in Austin. This quartet plays with fire in the belly enthusiasm and foot stomping energy that grabs you from the first notes. These four - Jess Dalton (bass), Dave Wilmoth (mandolin), Trevor Smith (banjo, guitar) and Adam "Pickles" Moss (fiddle) - have an effortless musical cohesion on stage, injecting their slightly quirky and completely contagious spirit into their rich harmonies and showcasing solos. GMG fall on the funkier improvisational end of the spectrum, traveling between searing fast instrumentals like Wilmoth's "Absinthe Before Breakfast" and the deep guitar and bass groove found in "Turkey Trot" with unexpected twists and turns in between.
There's a breathless, dark excitement that only a growling bass, heart-rattling mando/banjo double attack and the lovely, lonesome cry of a fiddle can evoke, like driving way above the speed limit down a moonless desert highway. As Moss' fiddle wailed in opener "Blue Ridge," old friends greeted each other with hugs at the tables and a lone starry-eyed couple spun on the dance floor. As the night wore on, the lights inside Ruta Maya fell, the venue growing darker and cozier. The crowd drew in close, a tight circle around the stage, as more folks trickled in front to join the spinning pioneers. The coffeehouse stage could have easily been a campfire or a back porch tucked away somewhere in the hills, down a dirt road past any discernable signs of civilization. Adding to this informal vibe, Austin violinist-vocalist Leah Zeger (Will Taylor and Strings Attached, The Hudsons, The Austin Symphony Orchestra) jumped on stage from her seat in the audience for some dueling fiddles during "Albuquerque."
Green Mountain Grass :: 03.03.08 :: Austin, TX
As GMG played on past their setlist, taking requests from the dance floor, Ruta Maya broke down into barely controlled, joyous chaos. Most of the seated were now standing, filling the dance floor with a healthy mix of twirling and foot stomping. A blur of overalls and tie-dye ran by me and dropped his beer on the ground, the bottle shattering and sending foam flying. Another local musician, Sick (THAT Damned Band, Sick's Pack), threw his fiddle into the mix at one point, appearing like a blue flame in a blazer and disappearing just as quickly. The first notes of fan fave "84 Blues" were met with cheers and segued into an energetic "How Mountain Girls Can Love" that ended the set with enough buzzing energy to make us all forget we had lost an hour thanks to daylight savings time and the 2:00 a.m. curfew was creeping upon us. It was indeed alive and kickin' in that thar Hill Country, deep in the heart of Texas. You just had to find the right road to take you there.
JamBase | Austin
Go See Live Music!