The New Jersey newgrass ensemble was joined on its buoyant return to Meijer Gardens by Vermont’s Twiddle, ensuring a night of positive energy and boundless talent. (Review, photo gallery)
On this most mesmerizing of Monday evenings, whilst jumbling around the Frederik Meijer Garden & Sculpture Park’s concrete jungle of dance floors, I came to the sudden and quite clairvoyant realization that GR stands for more than just Grand Rapids.
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The dual meaning of the letters had never quite occurred to me as it perhaps should have. Maybe I was never mature enough to understand the message, or perhaps I was too naïve to see what had been staring me square in the face for the last 10 years while I’ve called this wonderful city my home.
We are GR: We are Grass Roots.
At last, it all made sense. We are grass roots people.
This was precisely the reason why I stood among a damn near sold-out Monday night crowd at a venue which had most recently gotten slammed by some for its lack of crowd participation and overall energy. On Monday night, I can assure you there was nothing even remotely lame about this evening. As positive energy sweat from the very pores of humankind and dripped down onto the soft barefoot-trodden soil, onlookers could only feast on an evening of excellent entertainment.
The improv-heavy night of juicy jams commenced with the Vermont-birthed band Twiddle. The JamFlow Records four-piece ensemble brought its hearty sound of frothy funk, jazz and bluegrass to Meijer Gardens’ meal-anticipating audience. Combining roots of traditional folk and jazz music with the far-reaching frequencies of modern-day synthesizers and effects, the band set its destination to magic, and managed to maintain course throughout their set of well-orchestrated musical melodies.
Most four-piece bands fall under the category of “Tomato Soup” for me: rather basic with a decent amount of flavor, but overall lacking substance. Twiddle, however, is shelved alongside the various flavors of “Chunky Soup,” offering thick tones and depth. It is not uncommon to see one member even pause from playing, reducing the four-piece to a mere crowd of three, without taking anything away from the original recipe.
TIMELESS CLASSICS AND ‘EQUALLY EMPIRICAL MUSICAL METHODOLOGY’
Railroad Earth violinist Tim Carbone even garnished the dish for a few tracks to trade solos and get the crowd moving to Twiddle’s new-age takes on timeless classics. Twiddle concluded its set with the crowd-pleasing sing-a-long, “When It Rains It Pours.”
Contrary to this experimentally electronic opener, Railroad Earth followed Twiddle with an equally empirical musical methodology. The group’s collective age need not fool an ignorant listener: These guys excrete talent.
While I had previously seen Twiddle live, until this very evening, I had remained a Railroad Earth virgin. The New Jersey natives combine Americana, progressive bluegrass and jam band mentalities to form what some have called Newgrass.
Frankly speaking, if Kalamazoo-bred Greensky Bluegrass is the high-speed, action-packed car chase, Railroad Earth is the gentle kiss of a lover before embarking on a fulfilling journey of soul searching.
The group uses traditional instrumentation to rewrite its modern take on what I could only fathom as being 18th century party jams for travelers of the Oregon Trail. And it picked up the pace for “Blazin’ a Trail,” the first track from Railroad Earth’s 2017 EP, “Captain Nowhere.”
Throughout the set, organ, guitar, violin and mandolin melodies were traded back and forth like our forefathers traded oxen and barley. I was VERY impressed.
The crowd was also 100 percent on point. As I danced alongside fellow concertgoers from their late 70s to early teens, I pondered whether it’s the grass roots mentality of this city that fuels this kind of jam-infused music. The feel-good atmosphere cannot be replicated easily, and I have searched many a city, state and nation for people like those I’ve found here.
Maybe it’s because we prefer the unbeaten path? Perhaps it’s why we favor the unpredictable, simply because we are not common folk.
Grand Rapidians, from my experience, tend to enjoy a little taste of the wild side from now and then. We are extraordinary. Frankly put, it is the only reason I can equate such membership and energy to a concert which took place on a cloudy Monday night in the veins of Michigan’s left ventricle.
Stefan Schwartz, aka Stefan Paul, is a member of the award-winning Grand Rapids band Melophobix. He previously wrote about the Beaver Island Music Festival for Local Spins.
PHOTO GALLERY: Railroad Earth, Twiddle at Meijer Gardens
Photos by Anthony Norkus