Gig review: The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band

17 April 2011

Several weeks ago I was looking at upcoming acts for some of the smaller local music venues I know attract good musicians. Notes Live in Newtown listed a Saturday night gig for something called the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. The writeup sounded like they were the legit deal from the US, so I bought a ticket, without knowing anything more.

I later found out that Rowan is a bit of a bluegrass hero. He was only a “bluegrass boy” for Bill bloody Monroe in the ’60s: it doesn’t get more genuine than that. He was in a group called Old And In The Way with Jerry Garcia. He’s done lots of other projects, some related to rock and folk and reggae. But now he’s joined up with some other bluegrass die-hards and returned to those roots. It’s this band that’s now touring, having released a bluegrass album.

It was the real deal last night. Rowan plays guitar; the others play mandolin, banjo, and bass. Just about every song last night was bluegrass, or close to it.

Rowan’s voice is high, clear and lonely, perfect for the sort of music they play. And the other guys provide excellent harmonies; almost every song saw them do three-part, sometimes four-part.

In the first half they played just about every song from their latest recording, Legacy. My faves were “Jailer Jailer”, “Catfish Blues”, “Turn the Other Cheek”, the Carter Family’s “Let me Walk Lord By Your Side”, and the Tibetan-tune-influenced “Across the Rolling Hills (Padmasambhava)”.

After the break they played songs from Rowan’s solo career, Old And In The Way, and other influential early bluegrass tunes: “Old Mountain Dew”, “In The Pines” was awesome, Monroe’s “Roll On Buddy, Roll On” was fantastic. Another Carter Family tune, “Don’t Bury Me On The Lone Prairie”, was moving; and their “Wildwood Flower” guitar riff found its way into “Panama Red”.

Oddly, it’s some of Rowan’s most famous early songs that rub me the wrong way. They come across as mawkish and lame: “So Good”, “Land of the Navajo”, “Moonlight Midnight”, and “Free Mexican Air Force”.

But those are small whinges. This was a genuine, zero-frills, honest-to-roots, feel-good night of musicianship and vocal harmonies. These guys care about this music deeply.

If you’re in Sydney and you like bluegrass, you can catch the band on Tuesday night. They’re back in town and playing at the Cat and Fiddle in Balmain.

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