David Grisman Quintet | 11.07.03 | The Crystal Ballroom | Portland, OR
The buoyant floor of The Crystal Ballroom is bouncing before anyone steps on stage. Stomping feet, yelps, whistles, cheers and general prodding vibrate the room, calling the David Grisman Quintet like red flags flashed at a herd of bulls kicking up dirt behind a barred fence—taunting them to bring it on, "Come on, show us what you've got!" I haven't seen a crowd this excited for a long time—and with good reason.
There are many ways to describe this band; I will do it with footwear. Birkenstocks, hiking boots laced with one red and one black shoelace, fancier black shoes and cowboy boots reflect the variety, versatility and playfulness of the band. It's completely inappropriate for them to all be on stage together, and so, fits perfectly. The music is defined by the band's own lines; it takes influences from bluegrass, swing, Latin, jazz and gypsy to create something completely new with a mosaic of sounds from different walks of life.
They are masters. They are legends of their self-stylized music. It's not bluegrass, it's not rock, it's not country; it's not jazz. Enough of what it's not. It's Dawg music, a breed completely unto itself. It may seem they play this music because they love it but mainly it's so they can have song titles like "Chili Dawg," the first song of the evening. They play with intentional, delicate precision, creating music with patience and confidence, embracing its full range. They don't dive in pounding out momentum; it's incredibly skillful and beautiful. It's music of the psyche. Grisman's mandolin doesn't thrash and spin about to the tunes of the sounds it creates. He threads out high-pitched, fast-paced joyful mountain music while the mandolin remains steady at his mid-section. I listen and regress into a child with a gentle spreading smile sucking in a wide-eyed long gasp of air, too excited to speak so instead choose to inhale the world through my nose while every extremity and gesture screams, "Oh I know, I know! Choose me!" (Though in more tangible planes of reality this expression is often disguised as, "Yeah, they're great!").
They open slowly, building, wetting our palettes, enticing us by simply doing what they do. Jim Kerwin on acoustic upright bass and Joe Craven, playing everything from tenor banjo bongos and mandolin to refrigerator doorknobs, creep onto stage and begin building sparks of musical storms coating The Crystal Ballroom. The bass lays a beat for Joe's experimentation, slapping and popping beats from a plastic cup and his hollowed cheeks against the microphone until the cup pops out of his hand in perfect time and he dives into a new instrument. It's whole rounded entertainment—he's a one-man talent show, but wait, there's more! Enrique Coria is the next to arrive with his seductive and enticing guitar riffs. Matt Eakle on the bass flute follows, balancing sweet melodic wisps with spitting talk into his flute, which strongly resembles sink tubing. And the King of the evening, David Grisman, steps up last to join his entourage of 28 years with his mandolin tucked under one arm and a smile hiding under his great gray beard.
Slow Latin waves pull my hips while my body tingles as if individual hairs knotted into my spine are slowly weaving out from my core. The hairs tickle and move through every inch of my being like a thin line pulling out of my throat—too thin to gag on, it tickles and heightens every sensation. I border somewhere between queasy and radiant. I want to cry, smile, shake, laugh, and hug everyone around me during those delicately thread notes before they dive back into a cohesive twiddling medley that lifts my knees as if they were kicking up a long black skirt with red lace and I weave and dance in circles with bare feet over wet sand. When did I take off my shoes? As long as we're asking questions here, where'd the beach come from? I'd prefer to leave these questions unanswered and just sit back and enjoy the ocean breeze swirling against my legs and through my hair and... AH! This ocean breeze has puckered lips, beard stubble and a slight tinge of whiskey on its breath—not quite as romantic as music creating the world in scents of notes and chords. The hypnotic melodies and plunging heart strings lure me out of my body into a world where I can dance on sunlight alone, though I think I'll dance on the floor as well until I confirm that the people around me have little to no interest in licking any of my extremities.
As the evening begins to wind down into the second set it seems that every song may be the last. The band plays with the exalted energy that comes with knowing it's the final song of the night; the audience responds with desperate grateful applause, begging them for one more. Matt and Joe jig and dance around during these onslaughts of applause riding waves of energy sifted through the audience and sent back as satiated Dawg music. They play at least five songs under this momentum and the guise of the evening's close. This show would seem too short even if they were to play until daybreak. They end with "Man of Constant Sorrow" (the only song with vocal accompaniment of the evening) and finally drag their fighting feet draped in mosaics of genres off the stage without an encore—unleashing a horde of frighteningly contented people upon the streets of Portland.
Words by: Reanna Feinberg
Images by: Tony Stack
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