Ricky Skaggs at Dakota Jazz Club, 4/18/13
Photos by Nikki Miller-Rose
With Kentucky Thunder
Dakota Jazz Club, Minneapolis
Thursday, April 18, 2013
I've seen Ricky Skaggs perform now at three different venues, each as different as the next. He played alongside Little Jimmy Dickens and Eddie Stubbs before an immense theater of country music fans and blasting out over the WSM airwaves, continuing to write that legend that is the Grand Ole Opry. He was onstage at the Minnesota State Fair in the Leinie Bandshell on a warm summer night, audience with bellies full of beer aisle-dancing to bluegrass music. The latest is at a jazz club in downtown Minneapolis, on an intimate stage and before an audience that seemed comprised of equal parts bluegrass fans, and the folks who probably go to every show the venue offers, and are more accustomed to tapping their toes (slightly out of time) with a jazz ensemble.
For stages and audiences as diverse as each has been, Skaggs and his backing band Kentucky Thunder have played equally well to all of them, consummate performers who seem not to have "off" nights, unfazed even by a sedate, seated (and still dining) crowd as was the case at their Thursday night show at the Dakota Jazz Club.
We caught the 7 p.m. show -- there was a 9 p.m. set to follow -- and the crowd was slow to fill in with the April snowstorm. When we spoke to Skaggs last week we'd asked that he bring some spring with him from Nashville; instead, we got this. But all is forgiven as his alternately high lonesome then soft, sweet vocals, his frenetic then understated mandolin made us briefly forget what we'd just driven in, and what we'd be walking back out into after the show. While Skaggs and crew may have dialed back the energy just a wee bit to meet the audience's mood, overall the evening's sound was catered to the venue and a stage that while varied in its output, more often sees jazz than country or bluegrass music. Kentucky Thunder's sound was dynamic, nuanced, and well-suited to an intimate jazz club, at once hyperactive for an upbeat traditional bluegrass song, and then solemn and low for the ballads.
Skaggs kicked off his performance with a rousing rendition of the energetic Stanley Brothers tune, "How Mountain Girls Can Love." The song highlighted his mandolin skills right out the gate -- he can pick the holy Hannah out of that little thing, the instrument itself almost a century old, once belonging to Pee Wee Lambert of the Stanley Brothers. One moment he's playing it like a madman -- its enthusiastic, frenetic (but always tastefully controlled) sound at once alarming, and then on the ballads, calm, sweet and serene.
Their too-brief fifteen-song set covered a range of traditional tunes originally recorded and popularized by the likes of the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe and Doc Watson, as well as a couple tunes off Skaggs' gospel record, a collaboration with Bruce Hornsby, and a handful from his September 2012 record Music to My Ears. Backed by six piece Kentucky Thunder, who alternated upright bass, fiddle, acoustic guitars, mandolin, dobro and banjo throughout, the whole band really soared on the traditional bluegrass numbers. Their toe-dipping into other genres and sub-genres is done well, but bluegrass truly feels like their collective home, where they sink into their firmest groove. And not to say anything negative about their vocals -- the bluegrass yippin' and hoop 'n hollerin' especially appreciated -- but the whole ensemble really seemed to shine during their instrumentals, which had an unflagging energy and drive to them. Overall, their music as performed was joyful, but not showy, their raw talent carrying the show without need for stylistic flourish or silly stage moves.
Another highlight? Skaggs' storytelling. The man, now 58, has been playing mandolin since the age of five, and since the age of six has shared stages with Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs, eventually joining the Stanley Brothers before striking out on his own, so he's a valuable asset in country and bluegrass music, having been both a part of and witness to its very history. And he shares that history with his audiences, telling stories about how WSM saved bluegrass, about Bill Monroe's hunger... for some ham, and on Doc Watson's important vision -- even though he was blind -- and how he did more for lead acoustic playing/flat picking than anyone before or since.
Bottom line? If you get a chance to see Skaggs, no matter what the town -- Minneapolis, St. Paul, Nashville -- no matter what the venue, and whether you count yourself a fan of country, bluegrass, newgrass, gospel or none of the above, you ought to do it. He may not turn you on to any of the above genres, but he will turn you on to Ricky Skaggs. He's a performer not to be missed, a legend in his time who'll no doubt become even more iconic with time, remembered by and inspiring to generations of musicians to come, and himself doing so much to keep bluegrass alive, maintaining the stories and songs of the icons of his own youth as he goes. He carries the legacy of bluegrass' father Bill Monroe, and quite literally; he's not only continuing the tradition Mr. Monroe started, but ensuring audiences remember the man himself.
The Crowd: Dude hollering for "Country Boy" did not get his wish. Aside from his cover of "Uncle Pen" Skaggs' 80s hits were obviously stuck somewhere in the snow.
Overheard in the Crowd: After Skaggs told a story about performing with his father: "Who's his dad?" "Is it Boz?" "No, no, no."
Random Notebook Dump: "I really had my hair looking' a little more presentable, but I had an Arctic blast when I walked out of my hotel," says Skaggs early on. In spite of the Arctic wind, he's got hands down the best hair in the biz.
How Mountain Girls Can Love
Your Selfish Heart
Pig in a Pen
Loving You Too Well
Can't Hurt Ham
Music to My Ears
Encore: A Work of Love
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