J.D. Crowe & The New South at the Emelin

J.D. Crowe, after the evening's audience had departed. December 9, 2011
J.D. Crowe, after the evening’s audience had departed. December 9, 2011

I am still trying to figure out why J.D. Crowe’s banjo playing is so especially ear-grabbing. His right forearm perches gently on the banjo’s edge with hand at a downturned angle tented over the five-strings. The left hand’s hammer-on’s, pull-off’s, and slides have so much sustain that I look for an effects pedal that an electric guitarist would depress.

While he was playing Shuckin’ the Corn this past Friday night at the Emelin Theater, his matter-of-fact stage presence belied his high-wire above the speed limit (for the rest of us) picking. His notes fly on the front side of the beat while staying perfectly even. Earl Scruggs gave banjo pickers the three-finger roll. J.D. gives us the curl, the cut, the twist and the crunch. He’s like an Iron Chef preparing multiple delicacies in under sixty-minutes who doesn’t break a sweat.

In response to his band, the New South, saying that they won’t play the banjo in front of him, J.D. replied “The banjo? There’s nothin’ to it. Just like New York. Nothin’ to it.” I got a good laugh out of that. Summer Wages, was one of a handful of slow songs that put J.D.’s string bending and rapid fire note riffing front and center during backup and his solo. It gets my vote for the most dazzling and artful banjo work of the night.

Ricky Wasson (guitar), Dwight McCall (mandolin) and Matt DeSpain (dobro) traded lead vocals through the night and shouldered trio harmonies on almost every chorus that killed: I’m Walkin’, Girl from the North Country, Lefty’s Old Guitar, Where You Gonna Hide? When the Leaves that are Green Turn Brown, Cowboys Still Act Like Cowboys, Your Love is Like a Flower, Rock Hearts (J.D. swapped in on baritone for Matt), Back to the Bar Room, In My Next Life, and Little Bessie is a partial list.

All three singers have wide ranges (baritone to high tenor), lose themselves in the song, and bury virtuosity in the song’s story and harmony. I wouldn’t have realized that Dwight and Matt were frequently switching off singing the high harmony within choruses, depending on which combination they deem better, if I had not asked Matt about the harmonies at the end of the show.

I was most moved by Dwight’s I Don’t Know, in which the singer relates the difficulty of committing to a true love after previously being broken-hearted by another. Listening, I couldn’t help but think about the time in my own life when saying “I love you” and “I do” seemed harder than anything I had ever done. If I could have captured the song on video and posted it on YouTube with Ricky, Dwight and Matt, I would label them “The Three Kentucky Tenors.”

Matt dug into Foggy Mountain Rock, a favorite of mine from Flatt and Scruggs at Carnegie Hall and on Flatt and Scruggs 1948-59 (Bear Family). Dwight added a tremolo rich mandolin part that reminded me of Curly Seckler’s mandolin touches, which were infrequently heard in that golden Flatt and Scruggs era. The instrumental also keyed me into J.D.’s influence on Matt’s picking. When I spoke to Matt and Kyle Perkins (bass) after the show, Matt said that you can’t play with J.D. and not be influenced by his picking and even more so his genuine warmth as a mentor and friend. Kyle commented, “I’ve been preparing, I mean dreaming of playing with J.D. my whole life.”

Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike are next up in the Bluegrass Series at the Emelin on February 17, 2012 at 8 pm. Use code 2DAY20 online, by phone or at the box office to get 20% off any four tickets that are purchased on Tuesday and Wednesday December 13 and 14, 2011.