Saturday, August 27, 2016

Concert Review Flashback - Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver and Becky Schlegel at the Bluegrass Underground

I have been blessed to write contributions/reviews/interviews/opinion pieces for several country music and roots-oriented websites and publications over the years including Saving Country Music, Nashville Scene, Country California, Country Weekly, American Noise, The 9513 and Engine 145. As a regular contributor to the last two in that list, I did several hundred features/pieces. One of those was this concert review that I will reprint here to give it a home in perpetuity. This concert review was originally published in July 2011 in Engine 145.

To say that the Bluegrass Underground concert series is one of the more unique concert locations is an understatement of magnificent proportions.  Some several miles out of the whopping metropolis of McMinnville, Tennessee- population 13,000 or so- is a bluegrass concert series that is held once a month underground. 333 feet below ground at Cumberland Caverns, Mother Nature carved a natural amphitheatre in limestone. What resulted is what the cave owners call The Volcano Room. Over 3.5 million years, time and water have created one of the most acoustically pure natural spaces on earth.

Our concert experience, a midday show featuring Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver as well as Becky Schlegel, started at the mouth of the cave. Outside Tennessee heat index temperatures blazed near 100 degrees but the breezes emanating from the cave are a constant 56 degrees. A tour guide led four groups of about 100 people each in a descent of about a quarter mile past beautiful underground water pools and waterfalls pouring out of the ceiling. Cave kisses dropped occasionally from the ceiling. When we reached the Volcano Room, we were greeted with a beautiful chandelier that hangs down from the ceiling above a chamber that had comfortable stadium style seating for several hundred people. A stage was set in front of a lower chamber that acts as a green room. This venue is so unique, WSM 650 records and PBS films each performance to play on their respective medias.

South Dakota native Becky Schlegel opened things up with her on guitar, longtime bluegrass musician Tina Adair on background vocals and mandolin as well as a bassist and guitar picker. Charming up on stage, she made many references to the concert locale through her set. “It’s so hot outside, it took me an hour to cool off. Now I’m so cold, I can’t feel my fingers. My body thinks I’m in Wisconsin in the wintertime.” Schlegel’s voice flittered and floated like a dandelion on a breeze, appropriate since Dandelion is the title of her last album. Her vocals hushed to a whisper at times and then flew up into a falsetto–sometimes in the same line. “So Embarrassing” told of the tale of an ex coming back to her former home a week after break-up, only to find her once-lover already with another woman, creating something emotional, heart-wrenching and beautiful all at the same time. Adair provided beautiful harmony throughout the evening and Schlegel even gave her a solo where she wowed the crowd with “How Great Thou Art.” Schlegel’s set included the beautiful “Patsy Cline,” a dedication to who inspired her to get into music as well as a new track called “Opry Lullaby,” a powerful storyteller’s delight about a lonesome wife hoping her husband who is away at war is hearing the same Grand Ole Opry show she’s listening to. She closed her beautiful segment with a cover of Greg Brown’s “Early,” a dedication to small town America. With just two acoustic guitars quietly backing her lonesome vocals, it seemed only fitting that a million years of quiet cave solitude lead to that moment.  

Then came Doyle Lawson and the rest of his Quicksilver band. With roughly 40 albums under his belt, one of bluegrass music’s elder statesmen proved to be full of energy and humor at 67 years young. He shared stories and reflections of artists that he played alongside and artists he aspired to play like- including Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rogers and other Grand Ole Opry stars. A six piece band backed him including a fiddle, banjo, bass, dobro, acoustic guitar and percussi on. Jessie Baker, a 20 year old banjo prodigy that just joined the band in January, was a musical stud. Lawson joked that, “I have t-shirts older than him” but it was clear that there was a great since of satisfaction on having him on board. Baker pulled off a fantastic Lester Flatts impression doing lead vocals on “I Wonder How the Old Folks Are At Home.” Lawson himself played impeccable mandolin and Josh Swift wowed on the dobro. Lawson regularly let his Quicksilver band mates take the lead vocals with Mike Rogers getting most of the load- sounding a bit like Vince Gill. The result was a robust fuller sound than what Schlegel’s set had produced and it filled every corner of the cave. Sharp and pleasant, it was tremendous instrumentation at its best.

The band played crowd favorites such as “Blue Train,” “Precious Memories,” Country Store,” instrumental “Dear Ole Dixie,” Deford Bailey’s “Evening Prayer Blues,” Paul Simon’s “Gone At Last” and “Help Is on the Way.” All in all, they covered nearly two hours of music.

But the highlight of their entire set was when they put the instruments away and did four straight four-piece a capella gospel songs. “My Lord Is Going To Move This Wicked Race,” “I’m Going To Heaven Some Sweet Day,” “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart,” and “Hide From The Storm Outside” were near-spiritual songs to behold in this environment- almost revival-like. At 333 feet below ground, this was as close to hell as I’ll hopefully get. It only seems appropriate then, that heavenly gospel stole the show.

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