I arrived at the FleetBoston Pavilion for JamGrass 2002 a little late, as it's hard to get anywhere in Boston at 6:00 during rush hour. I had been waiting for this date of Sept. 20th for the whole summer and it had finally come! We walked in and found Jorma Kaukounen midway through his set of blues-tinged acoustic music. I had really wanted to get there on time, because from what I had read I thought that Jorma was going to be playing with Leo Kottke. To my surprise he wasn't playing with Leo, but with a mandolinist and a woman playing an acoustic lap steel guitar. I only caught the last few tunes, but from what I could gather it seemed to be a very tight, yet mellow set. It sounded great. Jorma was laying down some great blues solos and the woman on lap steel was fantastic.
After a short break, John Cowan and his band took the stage. The band consisted of John on electric bass and vocals, Jeff Autry on acoustic guitar, Pasi Leppikangas on drums all the way from Finland, Tommy Burrows on mandolin and 22 year old Luke Bulla on fiddle, who is actually the current reigning fiddle champ of America and first gained that title at age 7. They started their set with a quiet, slow intro that incorporated elements of pop, rock and bluegrass. That tune really set the tone for the rest of their set. It was not traditional bluegrass but was infused with more pop/rock songs.
Almost as if to prove my hypothesis, the mandolin player switched to an electric Fender Telecaster after the first tune. The next tune was an old Merle Travis song called "Darkness." Right after that, John called up the first special guest of the day, Sam Bush, a living legend and a pioneer of New Grass. They played a John Hartford song called "Fabulous" and the bluegrass started to really pick up. They jammed it out and Sam let loose some blazing mando solos. Next up was a cool tune called "2 Quarts Low," which, according to John, was about a "fucked up truck." If you listened to the lyrics it was a pretty funny song about a broken down truck that, no matter what you did, was always 2 quarts low and the adventures arisen from that. Sam Bush was tearing it up again and Jeff Autry was one mean picker on the acoustic guitar.
Unfortunately, I have to admit I was disapointed with John's set overall. It was interesting to see how each player chose to use their time over the course of the day. There just wasn't enough bluegrass in his set for me. John has always seemed to push the envelope more towards rock and pop, and this was evident today. We even got a ballad. On the good side, John's vocals were great. He has a nice, smooth, high voice and he handles melodies well. His voice shined throughout the day, his voice is his best weapon. They played a nice last tune to close out their brief set and it was on to the next 'grass band.
After too long an interlude, which actually ended up killing 20 minutes of their stage time, Peter Rowan and his band came out. His band included Billy Bright on mandolin, Bryn Bright on bass and Tony Rice on acoustic guitar, and this was really the act I had been waiting to see all summer. Actually, I think I've been waiting to see Rowan live ever since I got into Old and In the Way. When he came on to the stage I couldn't believe I was watching Peter Rowan from only 20 feet away! Due to time constraints I don't even think Rowan had a chance to introduce his band, but everyone sure knew who was on guitar.
Rowan warmed up with a great slow bluegrass tune and without wasting any time they went into "Midnight Moonlight" and the crowd, including myself, went absolutely nuts. This was exactly what I wanted to hear, some tunes from Old and In the Way. The playing wasn't quite the same but then again Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, John Kahn and Vassar Clements weren't up on stage with Rowan, although maybe in spirit. We were treated to a slower, much more mellow version of the tune. Next up was another Old and In the Way classic, "Panama Red." Again Rowan's voice shined and the tune was slowed down to highlight it. Tony Rice was laying down some sick solos, but those who weren't close to the stage might not have been able to hear, again because of technical problems.
Finally after Panama Red the sound picked up and the problem seemed to be fixed. We got to hear Rowan's first yodel of the day on this tune, I believe it was called "Wild Mustangs." Rowan's voice really sounded great, almost the same as it did 30 years ago. Not quite as powerful as back then, but fantastic nevertheless. After that tune we were all surprised to hear Rowan say thank you and goodbye. I looked at my watch and his set had started only 25 minutes earlier. 25 minutes! That's all bluegrass legend Peter Rowan gets, I muttered to myself.
They must have corrected everything, because Sam Bush and his band didn't come up too much later. I was pretty pumped to see Sam and he certainly didn't disappoint. I think Sam chose to use his time to win the crowd over and try and make his name more well known to the mainstream. For many artists on this tour, this might be their first time playing all over the U.S. for crowds this large. Due to the success of the O, Brother soundtrack, bluegrass is becoming more mainstream again. Certain people are trying to capitalize off that and who can really blame them. If you had been existing in obscurity for most of your career and someone offered you a chance to play a major festival you would make the most of it too, and Sam did. Not to say that he is obscure, but this festival was probably the first time many music fans swimming in the mainstream had ever seen him play.
From the first moment it was clear that Sam was here to entertain. He has great stage presence and really warmed the crowd up with his humor. I have a feeling Sam gained a few fans after this show. When he was introducing his band he would add in little comments. After introducing each member they would then tease a famous classic rock song. After introducing Byron House on bass and telling us how they went to high school together, the band started to play Boston's "More Than a Feeling." I assumed this was because we were in Boston, but I was at the tour closer 2 days later at Jones Beach in NY and they played the same song with the same jokes added in. In fact their set was exactly the same as well. After the Boston tease Sam said "by the way, I hate the Yankees just as much as you do," and the crowd went crazy. He introduced his drummer, Chris Brown, by saying jokingly that he had played with Cirque Du Soleil for 13 years. After waiting for laughs he continued, saying "OK, would you believe 5 years with Dolly Parton.........how about that he used to tune David Grisman's mandolin," which I wasn't sure was a joke or not. After introducing Chris they teased Black Sabbath's "Crazy Train." Then he introduced John Randle Stewart on acoustic guitar "originally from Drunkersville.....er, I mean Dunkersville, Texas."
After a brief intro, the band went into Bob Marley's "Lively Up Yourself" and the crowd stood up and started dancing. By this time the sound was great and the crowd was clearly appreciative. They played a rockin' version, no bluegrass, and John had a great guitar solo using his wah-wah pedal. "Lively Up" segued into "Is This Love" which was also awesome and had the crowd singing along. Now I love a good Bob Marley tune as much as the next guy, but I really wanted to see Sam lay down some bluegrass. This is what I meant when I said that Sam chose to use his time to play up to the audience. It was almost a cop out playing 2 Marley songs and taking up half of his set with it, although it was great. Sam gave us his first mandolin solo and left us with a taste of what was to come.
After "Is This Love" Sam declared the band was all warmed up and asked us if we were. We responded in kind. Next tune was about a friend from a small Iowa town called "They're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone." It was awesome, bluegrass with a rock edge to it. Sam absolutely tore up some mando solos. After that we heard a song written and sang by John Randle on guitar. This song was essentially a country song and really put the crowd to sleep, not a good choice at that particular moment. The next song was my favorite of his set with a great name to match "Mahavishnu Mountain Boys." You could hear the obvious John McLaughlin influence from the opening riff. Sam put down his mando and picked up the fiddle. What I've noticed about most bluegrass mandolinists is that they also play the fiddle as well. It's always interesting to see if the talent transfers and in this case it certainly did. Sam laid down some absolutely incredible fiddle solos, he was moving his arms so fast and doing some things I've never seen anyone do. They played one more tune that I didn't catch the name of, a fast fiddle driven tune and Sam again amazed me. This was my introduction to Sam Bush and I am sold. He's coming to Boston soon and you can bet I'll be there.
Next up was the master himself, David Grisman and his quintet. Watching David Grisman and his band play is probably about as close to perfection as you can get. At this point, they have all played together so long that everything is virtually flawless. Every time I see this band I leave shaking my head in amazement, and always seem enjoy it just a little bit more than the last time. The intro began with one player starting alone on stage and each member of the band coming in a minute later. Finally "Acoustic Disc Recording Artist" David Grisman is introduced and appears on stage. The band consisted of Jim Kerwin on bass who has been in the band for 17 years now, Enrique Correia on classical guitar, Matt Heckle on flute and Joe Craven on second mandolin, violin, bongos and mouth percussion, a very talented multi-instrumentalist. All of these players have been with Grisman for at least 10 years.
They started things off with a Latin-flavored tune, with Enrique showing off some real nice work on the guitar. This band is so tight, it is an incredible pleasure watching them play on stage. You can tell they really love being up there. Grisman told us that the next tune was the second one he ever tried to write, and he did it by emulating his heroes such as Bob Osbourne and Bill Monroe. This tune was deadicated to Peter Rowan, Tony Rice and Sam Bush. The Dawg Music was really happening now. On this tune Joe Craven broke out the mandolin and we got some dueling mandos, which was, needless to say, incredible. Joe could hold his own, but no one compares to the master.
Next up was another Latin-tinged tune with Matt Heckle adding a very nice flute solo. Enrique was solid on the guitar as well and by this time Joe had switched to violin and he added some beautiful solos as well. Then they played "Dawgnation", the title track to Grisman's new album and David deadicated it to his old friend Jerry Garcia. We got another Dawgnation track, Slade," next. There was some intricate interplay between instruments on this track and some nice buildups and climaxes. Again, I can't stress how tight this band is. Joe Craven was all over the place, it's incredible how he switches effortlessly from one instrument to the next. The set was too short, but that seemed to be the theme of the day.
Dark Star Orchestra came up next to close out the evening. They obviously didn't have time to recreate a Dead set this time and I'm not sure how they chose the tunes on this particular night. They opened up with "Sugar Magnolia" and segued into "Cumberland Blues." Next was "Playing in the Band" into a long jam into a stunning "Wharf Rat," which the crowd loved. "Wharf Rat" segued into "Uncle John's Band" and then went back into "Playing." The encore was the "Sugar Magnolia" & "Sunshine Daydream" reprise. DSO was their typical selves, they really do sound exactly like the Grateful Dead. At this point, for me, I still enjoy seeing them, but the thrill is gone. My first DSO show was sick, the next one was still really cool, but after you've seen them a few times it gets kind of old. I definitely felt they should not have headlined this event, with all the legends that were playing. I actually thought it was a little insulting to some of the other bands and wondered what they thought about playing a festival with a Dead cover band headlining. Nevertheless it was a solid entertaining set, "Wharf Rat" was sick and they ended the night right.
All in all JamGrass 2002 was awesome. Granted, there were things I would change about it, but it was great. I never would have dreamed that I would see half of these musicians play and it was really fulfilling. I look forward to a new and improved Jamgrass 2003.
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