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David Royko Psy.D


IBMA World of Bluegrass 2000

Chicago Tribune

Tuesday, October 24, 2000

Tempo

Arts Watch

A Bluegrass review


Players Explore Outer Limits at Fanfest Extravaganza

By David Royko

Special to the Tribune

LOUISVILLE In a weekend of around-the-clock performances, nothing personified

the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual FanFest better

than two numbers delivered late Friday night by the Swiss band, the

Kruger Brothers, and their young guest mandolinist, Chris Thile.


The technical skills of Thile and the Krugers--banjoist Jens in

particular--are so staggering the most common reactions are incredulous

laughter from fans and despondently envious tears from fellow pickers.

That their techniques are secondary to their equally abundant creativity

made them a perfect match, whether melodically caressing the Stephen

Foster ballad "Hard Times" or dashing through "Bill Cheatham" with

blinding speed and delicacy matched only by the wings of

hummingbirds.


That IBMA provided the ideal atmosphere for a collaboration

between some of the greatest non-U.S. bluegrass minds, with Thile, one

of the brightest lights for the future of music of any type, illustrates

IBMA's ability to celebrate bluegrass and assist in moving it forward.

Of course, the Del McCoury Band's excellence was more expected--assumed,

even--but their elegantly energized Friday set was no less precious for

that. The powerhouse McCoury ensemble, lead by Del's voice, the greatest

set of "high lonesome" pipes in the business, built out from the core of

Ronnie McCoury's blues-drenched mandolin work, as fiddler Jason Carter

and banjoist Rob McCoury played musical leapfrog over and around bassist

Mike Bub.


The McCourys proved they are not only one of the best bluegrass

bands now, but ever. The Saturday afternoon duet of banjoist Mark

Johnson and guitarist/mandolinist/singer Emory Lester simultaneously

glanced back and ahead. Johnson has refined his "clawgrass" concept of

grafting the older, pre-bluegrass claw-hammer method of banjo picking

with a more modern sensibility, to the point where one forgets the

means, only hearing the musical end.


His partner's playing dovetailed perfectly into Johnson's, exposing

Lester's love and knowledge of the tradition with his natural

inclination for newgrass. Crucial Smith stands at the top of bluegrass'

wild-child genre. Their set Friday demonstrated the maturation of

composing and execution that should put them in demand for summer

festivals


Banjoist Alison Brown brought drums and keyboards--bluegrass

taboos--to the main stage Friday, with exquisite results. Her quartet's

crisp approach to jazz highlighted Brown's engaging compositions and

witty improvising style.


Saturday afternoon's duo of Czech native Slavek Hanzlik (guitar) and

Skokie native Noam Pikelny (banjo) featured compositions by Hanzlik that

betray no nationality, instead making their statements in the most

universal terms--beauty and depth of emotional expression. Pikelny has

developed into a player with the skills and imagination needed to enter

and enhance Hanzlik's evocative tunes.


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