The night got an energetic start from Old Salt Union, one of the hottest groups in the local bluegrass scene and winners of the Riverfront Time 2013 award for best in the genre. The ferocious fivesome is lead by bassist Jesse Farrar, who has bluegrass in his blood, kin to bandmembers from Colonel Ford and Uncle Tupelo. He drives the band with a youthful, urban approach that proved the ideal start for the night. In a standard setup, the accompaniment included a fiddle, mandolin, guitar and banjo, but the boys were never fearful to swap roles, including an exciting mandolin duel and a ukulele in the later songs. The crowd grew larger and louder as the set continued, highlighted by a well-recognized cover of Del McCoury. Old Salt Union brought a set that both energized the crowd with the pep of bluegrass and just enough urban flavor to welcome fans of both genres involved in the night.
They were followed by a young new hip-hop act called Subtle Aggression Monopoly. While the group includes a total of four emcees, they performed as a duo in a late addition to the night’s bill. Students of lyricism and the progressive mindset of the independent hip-hop scene, the pair offered carefully crafted verses over their own beats. Young in their careers, the performance was certainly rough around the edges, but the potential for great things was clear and the group also known as Uncle S.A.M. will likely be turning a lot of heads as they become experienced performers.
The headliners took the stage ready to wow the crowd with an instrumental beginning to the night, but it soon became apparent that there was a technical difficulty with the looping unit that plays the drum beats for the act. However, the experienced band had little difficulty improvising with a few quick grooves on the instruments and some ad-libs, freestyle and even beatboxing from the duo of R-Son the Voice of Reason and Dolio the Sleuth. After multiple challenges, the beats came through and the show was underway with “Two Yards,” an exciting narrative piece that featured the two wordsmiths off “Broken Hearts and Stolen Money,” Gangstagrass’s third and most recent release. In no time, the stragglers in the crowd rejoined the dance floor and immediately began bouncing.
With a clear niche in the market, the act fronted by Rench on the guitar and vocals combines a live bluegrass band with an urban break beat and features a survey of emcees and vocalists across their discography. Appearing heavily on the two most recent releases, the lineup has been touring with R-Son and Dolio supplying exhilarating rap verses and serving as true masters of ceremony at the shows. In classic bluegrass form, they include Adriel Williams on a lively fiddle, adding a few effects to the mix as well, Dan Whitener setting the tone on the banjo and highlighted by Landry McMeans on the dobro.
They sampled music from across their releases but included a couple of covers early on to captivate any new listeners in the crowd, including McMeans leading a genuine Texan version of the timeless “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and the incredibly popular “Man of Constant Sorrow,” each with their own rapped verses included in the mix. While everyone was impressed throughout the show, the finale of “Ain’t No Stopping” was a true highlight, giving each musician a proper introduction with extended solo and a bit of choreography that spread as the emcees dropped to the crowd. After only a short tease, they returned for a final encore, inviting the emcees from Subtle Aggression Monopoly up for a final cipher with some incredibly well-selected verses.
From straw hats to ball caps, the bluegrass and hip-hop cultures came together without even a clash of fashion. As some shouted “ho!” amidst a shower of hoots and hollers, it was clear that good music truly brings people together. Gangstagrass and 2720 haven’t simply created a combination of music, they’ve created a compatible culture.
I Go Hard
Will the Circle Be Unbroken
Man of Constant Sorrow
Long Grey River
Put Your Hands Up High
Red Sky Morning
Rainstorm in Kentucky
All for One
Bound to Ride
Ain't No Stopping
Photos by Wil Wander.