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SMF Review: Ricky Skaggs

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I’ll listen to arguments on this one, but a big, roomy theater like the Lucas isn’t the ideal venue to hear live bluegrass. Mountain music goes hand in hand with the outdoors, with the light of a campfire and an easy breeze through the pine canopy.

And there’s no show, exactly – bluegrass musicians, traditionally, just sort of stand there, expressionless.

Be that as it may, a performance like Thursday’s by Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder was probably the best this situation is likely to get. Skaggs, who studied at the feet of the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe, and played alongside J.D. Crowe and Emmylou Harris, is an acknowledged master of the genre.

Kentucky Thunder is a seven-member acoustic band, with Skaggs – although he stands in the center and takes the lion’s share of the lead vocals – as just another player. His mandolin solos were blazing and brilliant, although he allowed one of his three guitarists, and the bass player, to sing lead on a song or two.

The set list was occasionally inspired – among lesser-known Stanley and Monroe tunes, Skaggs and band offered up a tribute to Doc Watson with a riveting “Tennessee Stud,” and a Skaggs-penned instrumental called “New Jerusalem” was complex enough to pass for a Punch Brothers song.

The hands-down highlight, however, was a full-tilt bluegrass version of “The Way It Is,” Bruce Hornsby’s 1980s ode to unemployment and pessimism in the Reaganomics era.

Skaggs strapped on an acoustic guitar for a pretty acoustic song, with chill-inducing high lonesome harmonies, called “You Can’t Shake Jesus.”

Now, everyone’s entitled to their beliefs, but at this show Skaggs might have set a new record for onstage Christian proselyting between songs.

Guitarist Cody Kilby was a band standout; his lightning-fast runs on the ol’ acoustic were reminiscent of a young Tony Rice (with whom Skaggs made a jaw-dropping album back in the day).

Skaggs’s singing voice has lost very little of the clearwater purity that helped rocket him to stardom – as one of the first to bring traditional Appalachian sounds back to the country music mainstream – more than 30 years ago.

Fittingly, the show ended with an inspired reading of Monroe’s “Uncle Pen,” on which every band member took a solo. Skaggs’ re-working of this breakneck-speed classic was a No. 1 hit when Ronnie R. was in office.

Hot dog, it still works. Even in the Lucas Theatre.

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