Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall | Community Church Coffeehouse | Chapel Hill, NC | 03.16.03
Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall, two masters of modern acoustic music, took the stage without any cords, wires or mics. It was just the two of them and their instruments, playing all-acoustic without any amplification, as pure and direct a sound as you can get. A special venue is essential for such a show, and the Community Church Coffee House in Chapel Hill, NC provided the perfect atmosphere.
A small room, with seating space for perhaps a few hundred at most, the venue is inside the socially progressive Community Church, which hosts music only once every month or two. After hearing the wonderful acoustics, I can only hope they decide to book acts more frequently in the future. Although there’s something great about going out to a bar to see a band, it’s refreshing to see music in a space devoted simply to music. There’s no yelling, no drunks, no smoke, and you can buy homemade pie during intermission. Before the music began, the church offered a candlelight peace vigil to coincide with similar gatherings around town and throughout the country that night. It wasn’t turned into a political event by any means, but was rather a simple gesture towards peace on the eve of war.
Edgar Meyer is a rare animal in the music world, creating intricate compositions on stand-up bass in both the classical and bluegrass genres. His work with Bela Fleck, Yo-Yo Ma, Mark O’Connor and others have won him numerous Grammy awards and much-deserved accolades from all across the musical spectrum. Mike Marshall is a similar hybrid monster, expressing himself mainly on mandolin, but also possessing extraordinary guitar abilities. Despite it being just the two of them on stage, their interweaving melodies filled up all the space in the music, dancing between bluegrass standards and classical influences. This music is sometimes known as “newgrass” or “new acoustic music.” Perhaps a more apt title would be “classgrass,” meaning either “classical bluegrass” or simply “bluegrass with class.”
They opened the show with the traditional “Golden Eagle Hornpipe.” Edgar bowed his bass, making it look easy as his fingers slid effortlessly up and down the fretless neck. They followed with “Fla-Flu,” which Mike had recorded on his 1996 album Brasil: Duets. The call and response nature of this tune prompted flashes of Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny through the woods. One of Edgar’s originals titled “The Green Slime” was next; featuring Edgar laying down some funky bass lines while Mike scratched his mandolin into a delta blues fury.
The sound quality in the room was fantastic, despite the lack of electricity. The notes soared through the air, with nothing but receptive ears to get in their way. The crowd was obviously quiet throughout the performance, determined not to miss any of the amazing sounds. Mike let the audience know how special the occasion was for them too by saying “We don’t get to do this very often.” By projecting the music directly from their instruments, they were presenting it as directly and honestly as possible. I think PA systems were only invented to drown out the guy yelling “Free Bird!”
They continued the set with an Edgar original titled “Duo #2,” a complicated upbeat number that they executed perfectly. Watching young jam bands earn their education in front of a crowd is always fun, but here we were witnessing a master class. They sounded like a CD, hitting every note perfectly and always twisting the music in an unexpected direction. “Flight of the Fly” by Brazilian mandolin master Jacob do Bandolim was followed by Bach’s “Prelude #8.” Despite bouncing between South American music, classical, and everything in between, they never seemed to lose their sense of identity, instead making it clear that all music shares a common thread. After reiterating the sentiment with Edgar saying “We love the room. Nice place to be,” they wrapped up the first set with a medley of traditional Irish songs. This was the quietest piece of the set, at least until the audience jumped up to give them a standing ovation to lead into intermission.
The second set was rolling along much like the first, with the audience’s collective jaw dropping. A medley of fiddle tunes had everyone bouncing in their seats when a collective buzz took over the audience. The secret weapon was about to be revealed. Edgar stepped away from his bass, walked down the steps at the base of the stage, and settled behind a grand piano set up on the floor at the front of the room. Mike followed with his mandolin, and there they launched into a jagged groove which featured Edgar’s beautiful piano playing, a sight that most in the crowd had not only never seen, but didn’t even know to expect.
Unfortunately, it was a short-lived diversion, as Edgar returned to his bass on stage for the next song. But the surprises weren’t done yet, because at this point Mike reached into his bag of tricks and came out with a guitar. They introduced the next song as “Frogs on Ice,” before Mike confessed, “We really need a lot of help with titles, folks.” Mike began picking out the melody while Edgar produced drone notes on his bass, eventually emitting a low rumble as Mike flew over the fret boards of his guitar. As Mike soloed ferociously between single-note runs and chord groupings, the song built up to a crescendo, at which point Edgar took over the melody, soaring over Mike’s huge chopping chords.
Another standing ovation sent them on their way and greeted their return for the encore, at which point someone in the audience yelled out, “Hey thanks for playing acoustic!” To which Edgar responded, “It’s a beautiful room and we appreciate how good the space sounds.” The duo then blasted into “Why Don’t You Go Back to the Woods,” from the seminal 1993 album Skip, Hop and Wobble by Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg and Edgar Meyer. Edgar went slaphappy on this tune, wailing away against his double bass while Mike could only stand by and watch amazed with the rest of us. The show wrapped up with the extinguishing of the candlelight peace vigil, and the audience made their way out the door with a truly amazing amalgam of music dancing through their heads. Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall had shown us everything in their heads and hearts, from Brazil to Bulgaria, bluegrass to Bach.
Words by: Paul Kerr
Images by: Todd E. Gaul at www.photophile.com
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