Words by Brian Bavosa
Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Abigail Washburn :: 01.22.06 :: B.B. King Blues Club :: New York, NY
Sunday is universally referred to as a day of rest. It usually involves prayer, a good meal, or this time of year, football. It was sort of ironic that the recent Sunday night sold-out show featuring Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart took place in B.B. King's Times Square location - a place notoriously known for blues and gospel. But, as witnessed, it was hardly a day of rest.
The night kicked off with a quick, five-song set by newcomer Abigail Washburn. She ran through songs such as "Eve Stole the Apple" and the East Asian influenced "Journey Home." As Washburn told the crowd, "Marty came up with the perfect quote to describe me...It's when Moonshine meets egg rolls." This seems like an appropriate way to describe this strawberry-blonde who sang in Chinese.
About 8:15, the mostly seated, older, dinner-audience erupted as Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder (Jim Mills - banjo, Darrin Vincent - guitar, Colby Kilby - guitar, Paul Brewster - guitar, Mark Fain - bass, and Andy Leftwich - fiddle) took the stage. I was especially interested to hear some of his stuff live, as over the last six or seven years, bluegrass music has really caught my ear. I am sure others feel the same way with Del McCoury playing at Phish's 1999 Oswego Festival and with movie soundtracks such as 'O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Ladykillers, opening the masses' ears to bluegrass and gospel. Sunday night, that was exactly the double-dose those in attendance received.
As Skaggs busted into "How Mountain Girls Can Love" to open his set, all fears and concerns I may have had of being out of place or not knowing the material subsided. Many East Coast jamband fans my own age (25) know this standard through bands such as The String Cheese Incident. "Goin' to the Ceili" followed, and then Skaggs began one of my favorite parts of the evening — his storytelling.
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder
He began by speaking of the old days of bluegrass, of the granddaddy of all flat pickers, Bill Monroe, and that this year marked bluegrass's 60th anniversary. It was apparent that Skaggs not only truly loved Monroe, but worshipped and idolized him. The next few songs were Monroe-related tunes, "Selfish Heart" and "Midnight Train," and were spirited, easily exciting the crowd with each solo. It was during these first few tunes that I realized how good Kentucky Thunder is. Each and every player displayed incredible chops, with the crowd screaming "Whoo!" and slapping their knees, especially during each fiddle solo, where even my relatively young legs struggled to keep up with the fireball pace these guys were setting.
Next, Skaggs played "Sis Draper" and "Sally Jo," a couple tunes focusing on some of bluegrasses' main themes: religion, love, and heartbreak. Skaggs compared "Sis Draper" to Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain, while "Sally Jo" seemed to make his heart pine for his own lost love.
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder
Then, celebrated "newgrass" mandolin player Andy Statman joined the band. The first tune, "The Walls of Time," saw him on the clarinet, slowing things down to an almost Middle Eastern, snake-charming pace. "Rawhide" also saw the first appearance of the night by Marty Stuart, as Andy picked up his acclaimed mandolin and proceeded to shred something fierce. Along with blistering solos by Stuart on mandolin and eventually by Skaggs himself, the crowd now began to erupt, showering applause and yells after each exchange.
The encore was the gospel number "Remember the Cross," which featured a single microphone and was a fitting choice considering the venue. Overall, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder managed to keep the crowd more than entertained with their impressive musicianship and storytelling, all while educating the younger folks about bluegrass music and showing that although sixty this year, it remains timeless.
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder by Bob Christy
During the intermission, I watched an entire busload of old folks from Kentucky and Tennessee shuffle out of the other half of the club, many dressed in their Sunday best. It put a smile on my face to know this was the traditional Sunday "Gospel Brunch" for which B.B. King's is famous. It was a reminder that what I had just seen was something these people grew up with down south, and it was a preview of what was to come.
Marty Stuart came onstage about 9:30. Like just about everyone, my relationship to Johnny Cash's music has been elevated over the past year, and with that in mind I was excited to check out Mr. Stuart. As pbs.org states, "Marty Stuart spent much of his young life playing mandolin and guitar for Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash. He compares his years with Flatt to a high school education and his stint with Cash to a college degree." I find this to be relevant because after the initial shock of his pants and of how big his hair was (Rod Stewart?!), I was absolutely blown away by what Stuart showed me. A few raucous hillbilly tunes opened the show, including "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'."
Like Skaggs, Stuart then began to tell some personal anecdotes to the crowd. First, he talked of the West Virginia coal mine tragedies and played Cash's "Dark as the Dungeon." This song had many wives in attendance dabbing at their eyes, and the rest of the room sort of bowed their heads in reverence and prayer. It was only fitting that he next included a track about how he was next-door neighbors with Johnny Cash, due to a fire at Roy Orbison's home in which his sons were killed. After Cash bought the property for a single dollar, he made Orbison a promise to never build anything there again and to only plant living things. Stuart then played an acoustic version of "Dark Bird," an absolutely heart-wrenching song and an ode to the Man in Black himself. I was thoroughly impressed with the attentiveness of the audience; even standing towards all the back by the bar you could hear each and every time he slid over a fret. These two acoustic treats were definitely highlights, truly oozing with sincere heartache and powerful lyrics.
Stuart then introduced the band (Brian Glenn - bass, "Handsome" Harry Stinson - drums, and "Cousin" Kenny Vaughan - guitar), and Vaughan sang "Country Music Got A Hold On Me." Vaughan had an almost obnoxious stage presence and looked like the missing Beatle from the 1950's with his Buster-Brown haircut and square, hipster glasses. However, I have to admit he is a solid guitarist, and I moved a bit to this number. Two songs off Badlands followed, the title track and a song about the massacre at "Wounded Knee," which had an uncanny tribal, chopping beat.
The other thing that impressed me so much about Stuart was his ability to shift from one genre to another with absolutely no effort at all. He played the gospel number "Take the Lord With You" and covered "Slow Train" and Pop Staple's "Somebody Saw Me." The encore saw Stuart play a quick solo number on his mandolin before being joined by the band for a quartet number (much like Skaggs), "I'm Workin' On A Building." The night closed with "In The Pines" and "Hillbilly Rock," completely bringing his set full circle.
At the end of the night, I had managed to be in the middle of B.B. King's in NYC while witnessing two living legends back-to-back. It was a history lesson, complete with show-and-tell by Ricky Skaggs and a hillbilly, gospel-tinged preacher session with Marty Stuart. Rarely have I managed to see a pairing so important to their respective genres, nor fans so educated and diligent in their respect for these men. This was truly a great show featuring a pair of world class talents, who are entrenched deep in the roots of bluegrass, country, and gospel and clearly are not afraid to let everyone know it.
JamBase | NYC
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