Wednesday’s kickoff to the Grand Rapids venue’s Acoustic Café Folk Series boasted a celebratory, rootsy, communal vibe courtesy of the Sam Bush Band. The Local Spins review and photos.
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For award-winning mandolinist and fiddler Sam Bush, it’s all about exposing audiences to the diverse textures and approaches that lie within America’s bluegrass tradition.
Whether it’s newgrass, traditional bluegrass, progressive bluegrass music or splashes of rock, country, gospel and even hip hop, “we try to give you a pretty wide variety” over the course of a performance, Bush told Local Spins.
That certainly was the case on Wednesday night at St. Cecilia Music Center’s Royce Auditorium, with Bush and his masterfully versatile band uncorking what he dubbed “musical fun” during the first live-audience show at the venue in 19 months.
More than 400 masked fans – after providing proof of COVID vaccination in a remarkably smooth reopening of St. Cecilia – eagerly cheered the return of live music as part of the kickoff to this season’s Acoustic Café Folk Series.
“You have no idea how thrilled I am to see you here,” Cathy Holbrook, St. Cecilia’s executive and artistic director, said from the stage while noting the venue had been relegated to live-streaming shows without an audience during the pandemic. “It’s not the same without you all here.”
Fans were equally thrilled, thanks to the Sam Bush Band’s multi-instrumental, genre-melding flair.
Joined by drummer Chris Brown, guitarist Stephen Mougin, bassist Todd Parks and banjoist Wes Corbett, Bush delivered a set that ranged from a psychedelic, dreamy opening instrumental to traditional bluegrass classics such as “Little Girl of Mine in Tennessee” and Bill Monroe’s “Roll On Buddy, Roll On” to upbeat originals such as “Everything is Possible.”
By the end of the night, the band had even transitioned to all-electric instruments, bringing a rock-show vibe to the Royce Auditorium stage, complete with nods to The Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider” and Rare Earth’s “I Just Want to Celebrate.”
The encore kicked off with the country gospel of Tim Krekel’s “Walking in a State of Grace,” spotlighting the band’s sweet harmonies.
Heck, at one point midway during the main set, Bush even tossed in a hip hop snippet of “My Shot” from “Hamilton: An American Musical.” Is there nothing these guys can’t do?
JAZZ-LIKE INTERPLAY AND RELISHING THE ENERGY OF A LIVE AUDIENCE
Diversity aside, these musicians proved their mettle most impressively during the evening’s lengthy jams.
During the rock-hued vibe of “Crooked Smile” – launched with a monster mandolin solo showing off Bush’s percussive power – the band traded solos amid jazz-like syncopation and changing beats, building to a furious, whirlwind crescendo, and drawing a standing ovation as a reward.
“Believe it or not, we still have a few notes left,” joked Bush, who acknowledged the band was delighted about restoring live music to St. Cecilia and could “feel the love” from fans. “We’re so honored to be the first ones back.”
And when it comes to variety, Wednesday night’s bluegrass pageantry didn’t just satiate fans hungry to return to some sense of normalcy after a COVID-marred year-and-a-half. The band, too, is clearly savoring the opportunity to be back on the road and back on stages (playing Wisconsin, Ohio, Kentucky and Arkansas over the next four days alone).
“It’s just been great to get out and see America again, especially as traveling musicians,” Bush told Local Spins in an interview prior to the show.
“Our life is built on a variety of the different places that we get to see and the different foods that we get to sample. That’s one of the things we missed the most: the variety.”
With one epic jam after another during the two-hour show, fans certainly appreciated the endless variety, prodigious talent and sanguine attitude displayed on stage.
As Bush sang during “Everything is Possible”: “Who’s to say something wonderful won’t happen to you?”
After a 19-month hiatus, it finally did for St. Cecilia and its patrons.
UP NEXT AT ST. CECILIA: Rodney Crowell on Nov. 12. Details here.
PHOTO GALLERY: Sam Bush Band at St. Cecilia Music Center
Photos by Anna Sink