Bluegrass, played with a spirit and energy that transcends genre, is at the heart of what Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder does. The songs and musicianship elevated the performance to something beyond expectations. This ability has made Ricky Skaggs a time-honored musician, whether he is playing straight-ahead country or his brand of Bill Monroe-inspired bluegrass.
"We are all here because of bluegrass," with those words Skaggs and his band kicked into a powerhouse of an opening. The night was rife with the modern sound of bluegrass and tributes to those that have passed on. It was a night that was about those that laid the foundation -- Monroe, Scruggs and Watson -- while also being about the present and future of bluegrass. The band mixed tradition with sounds that have been coming from the jam-grass circles and even some of the pop-influenced sounds of Mumford & Sons.
Since putting down his signature purple Telecaster nearly 20 years ago and rekindling his love for the mandolin, Skaggs has become one of the top bluegrass musicians, singers and songwriters, a musician who knows the traditions as well as what is happening now. He puts his unique voice to this genre just as he did over 30 years ago with his debut album "Waitin' For the Sun to Shine." He is a musician and songwriter that does not tire of looking forward. You can hear it in his voice, a voice that is equally at home with classics like "Uncle Pen" and "Tennessee Stud" and newer compositions like "You Can't Hurt Ham," "Music to My Ears" and "Can't Shake Jesus" -- all played at the Sheldon on Friday night.
The band itself is the power behind Skaggs' incredible voice, songwriting and mandolin talent. It is the band that roots itself in tradition with inspiration from jazz -- and keeping that band rooted is bassist Scott Mulvahill, a musician who adds a jazz-meets-Appalachian swing that seems to be missing in other acts.
Andy Leftwich and Cody Kilby (fiddle and guitar) are the virtuosos. They provide the instrumental voice (outside that of Skaggs mandolin) that, much as with Mulvahill, has a certain root in jazz. This was exemplified when the band kicked into the Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt song "Minor Swing." Each of them took turns and showed that the music they play has more than the Appalachian Mountains as its base.
Justin Moses stood on the right side of the stage in a stoic manner, looking as if he were a banjo-plucking version of John Entwistle. He took his solos quietly and played banjo inspired by Earl Scruggs. A quick little smirk would come across his face when he knew that he killed a lick.
But the heart and soul of Kentucky Thunder comes from that of Eddie Faris and Paul Brewster. Faris holding down the harmonic structure on rhythm guitar as the band trades licks; he also adds that middle harmony. Brewster, in contrast, is a voice to be reckoned with. He possesses a full-bodied tenor that makes for the perfect harmonist as well as a lead vocalist. His voice has a country soul, power, and heartbreak that makes it perfect for both bluegrass and country. It was exemplified when he was given the vocal spotlight to sing the classic "Kentucky Waltz."
The night was filled with many of the works that Skaggs and his band have been doing over the course of the past two decades. For long-time fans it was good to hear that Skaggs has not forgotten about his past -- a past that includes some of the best country music submitted to tape.
Just before the encore he gave the crowd the treat of "Highway 40 Blues," one of Skaggs' biggest hits, and "Uncle Pen"; both songs have endured due to their roots in the traditions of country and bluegrass.