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Monday, 10 June 2013 18:16

Concert review: Sam Bush validates newgrass paternity test and Cardinals loyalty at the Old Rock House, Thursday, June 6

Concert review: Sam Bush validates newgrass paternity test and Cardinals loyalty at the Old Rock House, Thursday, June 6
Written by Kevin Edwards

On March 30, 2010 the proud sons and daughters of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, acting through their elected representatives, approved a resolution designating Sam Bush as "The Father of Newgrass Music" and Bush's hometown of Bowling Green, Ky. "The Birthplace of Newgrass Music."

Heady stuff.

I should point out, however, that it is Kentucky, and that state is keen on bestowing stuff. As a result of one Internet transaction and a mailed certificate, I have a friend who I now have to call Colonel. He won't answer until I do. It's infuriating.

But that's beside the point.

So, what is this so-called "newgrass" music for which Sam Bush is, allegedly, the pater familias?

My research revealed more kinds of lawn seed than I knew existed and little else. Wikipedia is silent on the newgrass issue; there is an entry for progressive bluegrass, which it says is also known as newgrass, but there is no mention of a Sam or a Bush in the whole of the article.

What is going on, Kentucky?

So, without a predominant definition at hand, I will make up my own.

Newgrass sounds like what Brian Wilson might have done with bluegrass in his fireman's hat and acid phase. Or maybe what would happen if you gave Miles Davis a mandolin. It's both precise and loose. It mixes jazz and rock and blues with its mountain roots.

Bluegrass was born in deeply rural places, places where there are two county seats, one on each side of the mountain ridge. Newgrass is what happens when it moves to the city and becomes friends with diversity, has a cubano and some tiramisu and a mango smoothie.

Bush certainly has credentials. He bought his first mandolin at age 11 and somewhere along the line picked up the fiddle, as he was a three-time winner in the junior division of the National Oldtime Fiddler's Contest while still in his teens. In 1970, when he was 18, Bush was inspired by the rock influences he heard in the New Deal String Band and he began his own group which soon became the New Grass Revival.

In 1970, even the more progressive bluegrass groups were short-haired and similarly dressed. New Grass Revival changed that; they grew their hair long and their beards longer, wore more flannel than Pearl Jam and played what the fuck they wanted, including covers of the Beatles, Bob Marley and Leon Russell.

Through its 19 years, New Grass Revival went through lots of personnel changes; members included Courtney Johnson, Ebo Walker, Butch Robins and Béla Fleck. But Sam Bush was always constant.

And he has played music with more people than Norah Jones ever since.

My research led me to even more respect. This guy does nothing easy. The musicianship is incredible; the parts are fantastically complex and the whole of it refuses to be pushed into some genre slot.

I arrived at the Old Rock House on Thursday night to a moving sea of red and white as Cardinals fans were parking and walking quickly, flashing still-pale legs, the few blocks to the stadium. It was only a few minutes before those of us in line outside heard the fireworks. Home run!

It turns out that Bush is a huge Cardinals fan and has been since his days on the farm in Bowling Green, Ky. listening to Harry Caray and Jack Buck on the AM waves.

It's a scene so American that Norman Rockwell said, "No, too much."

A scene so American that it wants to send in advisors and help you manage your resources.

Bush sets tour schedules so that he can attend spring training. And, the day before our concert, he got to meet his idol Ozzie Smith and throw out the first pitch. The guy's 11-year-old dog is named Ozzie. Is there such a thing as baseball drunk?

Old Salt Union took the stage while it was still light out and the doors were flung open to the patio. People were eating BBQ and lots of it.

Poor bastards. Opening acts don't have much. But give them a darkened atmosphere, at the very least. In the dark something tells the audience there is a show going on and that people are performing. At 8 p.m., in the evening light, with the doors thrown open to the air, people were just chowing. And talking.

The band's bio reads nearly the same for each member in one aspect: they're all local boys from Belleville, Ill. The band consists of Dustin Eiskart on guitar and lead vocals, Ryan Murphey on banjo, John Brighton on violin, Jesse Farrar on bass and Justin Wallace on mandolin.

OSU played a tight, 45 minute set that I believe included all of the songs on their recently released album "Western Skies" but the 7 p.m. simultaneous door and kitchen open and 8 p.m. summertime start made them a lounge act in a BBQ joint.

Still, I tried to listen closely and I liked them best when they broke out from bluegrass into more jam-oriented songs, particularly "Flat Baroque" which featured Brighton and Wallace in a hotly contested mandolin duel.

This was a bit of a botched affair in regard to OSU but the next time I get a chance to hear them, I'll take it.

A long break between acts allowed plates to be cleared, belts to be loosened and beers to be quaffed. It was "Wear your Cardinals gear" night and Bush took the stage in a sleeveless Cardinals jersey with Ozzie's number on the back. The room was darkened by then. The man is nobody's fool.

From the first note you could feel the joy that Bush seems to get from playing music. He exudes fun and confidence. Early standouts were "This Heart of Mine" and "Bring in That Georgia Mail."

A bluegrass version of the Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face" was a highlight of the evening for me. Afterward, Bush announced the ballgame had been won 12-8. Bass player Byron House Todd Parks put on a tiny Cardinals hat that I'm pretty sure was once used to hold an ice cream treat.

The whole band is amazing. Chris Brown's drum playing was inventive and loose and the bass was supportive but also played abbreviated, jazzy solos as required by a nod of Mr. Bush's head. Guitarist Stephen Mougin and banjoist Scott Vestal were masters of their acoustic instruments but soared even higher when playing electric.

In an evening full of musical highlights, "Whayasay" was also outstanding. The covers of J.J. Cale's "I Got the Same Old Blues" and, especially, Levon Helms' "Rag Mama Rag" were stupendous.

However, it was when Bush picked up his fiddle that I became a convert. It's not that his fiddle playing is necessarily better; it's that he has mastered other instruments just as completely.

The evening was topped like a sundae in a baseball hat when the band came back for a one-song encore of Bush's ode to the Cardinals' Smith, "The Wizard of Oz." How can you not have fun group-shouting "Hey, Ozzie!" during the chorus of a song?

I came to Sam Bush through this concert, but I will return to see him again. His virtuosity and four-decade, genre-be-damned quest for greater fun and challenge, in my eyes, well-earns his moniker of Father of Newgrass or even King of Newgrass.

I wonder if Kentucky sells any title higher than a Colonel.

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