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Saturday, February 18, 2012


steve lewis and josh scott

scott freeman, steve lewis, josh scott

scott freeman

steve lewis

josh scott

willard gayheart

The angel of music visited the audience of 19 at Willard's Front Porch Gallery again Friday night with the Steve Lewis Trio. Steve plays bluegrass banjo and bluegrass lead guitar like the master he is, masterfully. Not just masterfully in that he plays pretty and real complicated, no. Steve plays music. You don't hear his intricate picking in the music. You see it in what his fingers are doing, but in the hearing of it there's no emphasis on self and what self can do with a banjo. Steve's mastery with music itself tells my inner being, from the time the first notes are struck, the music is On. His mastery with the banjo and guitar strings gives the songs a breath of life. In a work of visual art, the ones that stand out are the ones that have a breath of life about them. Steve breathes life into his art form, bluegrass music. The very same words can be used to tell about Scott with mandolin and fiddle. It's because they are both masters of music and their instruments. When Scott gets with Steve, we hear a Scott we don't hear a very great deal of, because he doesn't show off in front of musicians he's making music with. With Willard, it's more folk music, Doc Watson style guitar playing and singing old songs. With the Skidmarks it's their own jazz renditions of old-time tunes and tunes Scott and Willard composed. Sometimes, a Skidmarks concert can be a sound assault.

When Scott and Steve get together, Scott thrills everyone in the audience that comes to the show every week. We appreciate Scott's pickin and his singing, his music, and have for a couple years of almost every week. He always plays stellar mandolin and fiddle. When Steve is visiting, Scott opens to a new level he can only reach with Steve. And Steve can only get there with Scott. They have a musical sense with each other something like Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, or Ron Wood and Keith Richards, or Cannonball Adderley and Nat Adderley, or Charlie Rouse and Thelonious Monk. In the time of the band ALTERNATE ROOTS, Steve came into the band between the band's second and third albums. The band had no banjo before. It was Scott's mandolin and fiddle, Randy Pasley's resonator guitar, Willard and Katy's rhythm guitars, Tony Testerman's bass. When Steve was with them, their sound was the sound of Alternate Roots. Steve's banjo arrived in the band and rose their sound to a new level. He didn't change the nature of the band, but gave it a new sound to dance with Randy's Dobro and Scott's mandolin. An Alternate Roots concert was as satisfying a concert as any of the most satisfying ones I've been to. Satisfying like Burning Spear at Ziggy's in Winston-Salem. Or hearing Carlos Montoya in an audience of a dozen.

I'd forgotten the refreshing sound of Scott and Steve making music together. Not forgotten, just hadn't thought about it in awhile. Scott and Steve like to reach out in their bluegrass pickin. They can tear up David Grisman's EMD (Eat My Dust), mandolin and guitar. They tore up some contest tunes, Alabama Jubilee one of them. One of my favorites tonight was Angeline The Baker, which Steve told about was written by Stephen Foster. That's a tune you hear at fiddlers conventions about as frequently as John Brown's Dream. I've known it as a fiddle tune, autoharp tune, mandolin tune, guitar tune. It's one of the great old-time songs. They played it right, too. Josh's bass gave their music a fullness of sound. I mean that literally. It filled in the nanosecond gaps between their notes with the bass sound that advances, even like it is behind them pushing them. Jane's Addiction's drummer had the same sense in his drumming of pushing the rhythm. That's the closest I can get to defining what I'm reaching for. Mandolin and banjo playing together, both of them playing aggressively, the bass thumping a true bass sound that did not stand out as artful bass playing, because he wasn't showing off. He was providing the rhythm, Scott told me some years ago that Josh's control on the bass is so with the flow that the instrumentalists don't have to think about the rhythm. Josh has it under control and they can ride the waves of his rhythm like on surfboards. Hang five, dude.

The audience was happy with the music we heard. It's always a happy audience there. When Steve and Scott get together there, once or twice in a year, they light up the night. Steve and Scott without the bass give a different kind of show from with the bass. Josh's bass does something that supports their sounds like a floor supports dancers. The three of them together have their sound that works. It is distinctively them. Whatever tune they play, it's exactly how I want to hear it played. They kept the air alight with their music. These three musicians have a musical charisma together like the four musicians of Skeeter and the Skidmarks. They have a sound that is their own, and both bands are composed of excellent musicianship. They keep the tradition advancing through this time of fast change. The picture above of Willard is him listening to these musicians he regards, as a musician, with awe. He is in awe of both their abilities. He thinks they're way out there beyond him in musicianship. He only plays rhythm guitar, can't play lead, or doesn't like to play lead. He isn't vain enough to allow himself to consider that his rhythm guitar playing is known by musicians all around this area. Other musicians embrace an opportunity to make music with Willard. The musicians he listens to with full respect listen to him, in turn, in full respect.

Both Scott and Steve teach the next generation. Scott has a corner of Willard's Front Porch Gallery where he works with his students every day. Steve has a steady schedule of students in Ashe County and teaches Appalachian history at the high school. That would be a good class. Steve can connect with teenagers freely with a mutual respect going. He and Scott would come under the Japanese word sensei, teacher in the highest sense of teacher. A master passing knowledge of one sort or another on to the next generation. This is how the music has lived down through the centuries, each generation passing the music to the next, however it's taught in a place and time. In the old-time days when you wanted to learn an instrument, you got some money together to buy one. Then you figured it out. Whenever somebody asked bluegrass banjo picker Jr Maxwell to teach him to pick, he told him if he can't figure it out on his own, he don't want to learn it. Jr meant it. The guy took it for Jr's way of saying no, which it was, but it was also his reason for saying no. He figured it out. All the other banjo pickers he knew figured it out, fiddlers and guitar pickers too. Figuring it out was the tradition. The tradition is changing. We don't learn by figuring out any more. We learn my memorizing details for tests. Very different ways of thinking. I won't say one is better than another. Just different. Maybe one naturally follows the other. Scott and Steve and a host of other musicians in the tradition are passing on the music as it is done in this generation.


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