David Grisman Quintet & Old School Freight Train :: 05.21.05 :: World Cafe Live :: Philadelphia, PA
David stuck out like a sore thumb. We spotted him smack dab in the middle of Penn's campus just strolling up Market Street. His gray beard was in stark contrast to the young, brightly dressed Ivy League students. He was as easy to spot as picking Where's Waldo out of an empty room. The quick Grisman sighting made us smile as we strolled over to the venue.
The World Cafe Live contains two stages: a smaller one upstairs in the bar and a larger main stage downstairs. Deemed by many supporters as the best-sounding venue in the state, it's like sitting in your own personal recording studio. The walls are covered in acoustical paneling sporting shades of blue. The sound is so solid that when the music is full tilt you feel the need to whisper, even up at the bar. With a pat on the back and some friendly words from the door folks we slid into our seats to learn exactly what they meant when they said, "not a bad seat in the house."
David Grisman :: 05.21.05 :: Philadelphia
Gracing the stage first was Old School Freight Train, a fresh new band proud to be from Charlottesville, Virginia. The five bluegrassers pulled out a snazzy mix of covers and originals including "Run" - the title track off their debut CD. The Freight Train played for about an hour before David Grisman jumped on board, donned his conductor's hat, and blew the whistle.
Grisman must think quite highly of Old School Freight Train because they are the first artist to grace his label Acoustic Disc in a number of years. He joked with the crowd that he never really met any of the Old School Freight Train members before he signed them. "We basically sealed the deal through email," said Grisman. The conductor abruptly pulled his train out of the station; the first stop was a visit of "Barkley's Bug" from Dawganova.
David Grisman with Old School Freight Train
05.21.05 :: Philadelphia
Throughout the crowd, faces lit up as if they were being transported back to a Christmas morning from their youth. Grisman's smiles and body language were so friendly he immediately made everyone feel like extended family. His bob-and-sway movements sent reflections of the crowd off his mahogany-toned mandolin. Despite his spirited bounce, his instrument remained frozen to his side as if it was set into some sort of invisible pocket. Grisman's eyes told almost as many stories as his mouth. Our conductor shot great glances around the room as his way of trying to say a personal "Hello" to everyone in attendance. His silver hair waved at us as it was playing with the light and emulating the colors.
Grisman's Dawg music has been described numerous times before. Folks always pay special attention to his lack of boundaries, and tonight was no exception as the unique jazz-grass, Latin-flavored, reggae-rock echoed around the heart of the venue. The members of Old School Freight Train did a fair job of keeping up with Grisman's lightning-fast fingers. At times, it appeared as if Grisman was acting as a screen, filtering Old School Freight Train's classic and traditional playing through a sort of Dawg-sifter. He appeared to be coaxing out each member's inner-most Dawg. Let's just say some members found their Dawg easier than others. Darrell Muller, the spine on upright bass, held strong lines of musical communication with Grisman. Their instruments joked and laughed back and forth throughout "Little Samba" from Dawg 90. Muller offered wonderful finger-style playing that reminded us of Jim Kerwin (DGQ). The interplay between these two was excellent and started to shake the crowd to their senses. One small boy couldn't contain his excitement, or perhaps the ice cream rush, and proceeded to jump around to the music.
One of the evenings more poignant moments came as Grisman dedicated "Dawg's Waltz" (Garcia/Grisman & Grateful Dawg) to Jerry Garcia. We listened to Grisman's fingers dance across his mandolin and realized how much of a virtuoso he truly is. The crowd swayed and danced in their seats. We were obviously not the only ones enjoying the moment; on stage the Old School Freight Train members were being taught the lesson of a lifetime by a true master.
Old School Freight Train's fiddler, Nate Leath, was perhaps the most impressive player in the band. He found his inner Dawg down deep. The fiddler played with a heavy elbow and a keen sense for the music. Grisman expressed his pleasure with Leath by sending a few strong looks his way and a funny analogy to the crowd. At the end of one of his song introductions, Grisman playfully described Leath's playing as "Zeus tossing lightning bolts." Then before launching into Old School Freight Train's "Tango Chutney," he turned to Leath and laughed out "It's you and me, kid." Leath backed off on the violin just a tad, and the two held the most beautiful communication of the night. Grisman played off Leath's newfound touch and brought a silky sweet jam to "Tango Chutney."
David Grisman :: 05.21.05 :: Philadelphia
The evening concluded with a three-song encore. After each song, it appeared we were finished, so we applauded with all our might. But Grisman kept coming back saying, "Well, the customer is always right." The gem of the encore was sandwiched in the center - a rousing cover of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition." The heated song has been in heavy rotation on this tour seemingly because Old School Freight Train covers it on their CD. Grisman was all grins as the six kept the train firmly on the tracks through the 1972 hit. It was great to hear the mandolin gallop through the strong funk-rocker, twisting the Dawg take on it. It will be interesting to hear how the tune develops after a few more stops on the tour.
Grisman's music allows us to listen with more than our ears. We feel it in our bones, in our minds, and in our hearts. It's these emotions coupled with incredible talent and an amazing ability to mix styles that are the trademarks of his Dawg music. It's wonderful to see him pass on his style by inspiring a new generation of musicians, musicians like those found in Old School Freight Train for instance. By fostering the younger generation and helping them find their way to the "next level" Grisman not only assures himself, but the rest of us too, that his Dawg music will continue to grow and live on for years to come.
Words & Images by: Jake Krolick
JamBase | Philadelphia
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