I have been invited to blog for the Emelin’s 2011-12 Bluegrass Series. It’s fitting on many levels that the first band of the year’s season was the Gibson Brothers. My earliest post on Jim’s Roots and Blues recounted the first time I heard them; the second time I heard them perform was at the Emelin six and a half years ago. Their recent awards for Vocal Group and Album of the Year from the International Bluegrass Music Association will place them in more high profile billings for 2012 than ever before. Kudos to Arnie Fleischer, the theater’s bluegrass programmer, and the whole Emelin crew for choosing the Gibsons to kick off this season.
“Hi. How’s everybody doing?” were the words Leigh Gibson (guitar) used to welcome the near capacity audience this past Friday night. They were warm and from the heart. It’s All Right With Me and Callie’s Reel quickly followed. Eric (banjo and guitar) and Leigh’s singing was in the pocket and continued to be for over ninety minutes. When they wanted to reach for a note or wrap around one because of the song’s demands, they did. Storytelling, emotion, grit, and power flowed through their vocals and instrumentals all night.
From the beginning the band’s lockstep was apparent. I think of a great bluegrass band as a team riding in a musical peloton. Whoever is the leader receives the unwavering support of the other team members. At the core of the Gibsons is Mike Barber (bass). Mike played unobtrusive but intriguing lines that subtly shifted in style depending on the song’s placement on the old-time country and bluegrass continuum. On the left, Clayton Campbell (fiddle) displayed intensity and improvisational brilliance. On the right, Joe Walsh (mandolin) translated his muse’s song into understated virtuosity. Their symbiosis shone especially during the band’s cover of Tom Petty’s Cabin Down Below. Clayton bowed sultry double-stops that mimicked Eric’s phrasing of the line “Come and go with me babe.” Joe picked up the next solo with a wave of strums followed by a blazing scale of descending notes.
Eric’s banjo playing always continued right up to and after his singing restarted. He bent strings from within chord positions and set off delicate harmonics on the strings for the second verse of The Wishing Well, a beautiful complement to Leigh’s singing “there’s a jingle in my pocket, gotta try my luck again.” Leigh’s D18-Authentic looked and sounded just like a Martin should. In his well-placed solos, he ornamented melody without overdoing it and effectively integrated cross-picking into his flatpicking.
The evening had its share of good-natured and spontaneous humor to keep the mood fun and relaxed. Through it all every band member was a seasoned professional, taking the music more seriously than himself. The audience’s laughter was interspersed with tears, too, especially for She Paints a Picture, One Raindrop and Farm of Yesterday.
The Yankee Rebels, stalwarts of the Southstreet Seaport contests of the seventies and all in full-time jobs outside the music industry, brought great trio singing, humor and picking to the evening’s opening. Katy Daley, host of a three-hour weekday morning show on WAMU Bluegrass Country, traveled from the Washington D.C. area to host the evening. Katy has interviewed, produced, and promoted Gibson Brothers features including live performances at IBMA, and a three-hour feature with in depth interviews of Eric, Leigh and Mike that included part of Lee Michael Demsey’s conversation with their parents.
J.D. Crowe performs next in the Emelin’s Bluegrass Series on Friday December 9 at 8 pm. Tickets are available from the theater’s website.