Bluegrass double latte
“I've actually heard Bluegrass fans say they would rather hear bad bluegrass than good anything else,” Danny Barnes has written. “That's a pretty punk rock thing to say, come to think of it,” he continued, though he could have easily substituted blues, classical, or hip-hop. Lately I’ve found myself on the receiving end of more than one upbraiding about what is and is not bluegrass. Barnes fools around with genre distinctions and doesn’t worry himself whether he “is” or “isn’t.”
Strangely enough, these arguments eclipse discussions of whether a certain band is good or bad, or even which style/form/content/hairdo constitutes bluegrass. I’m not arguing that these things don’t matter to bluegrass keymasters and gatekeepers, but unless you handle the term “bluegrass” strictly and judiciously, some feathers could be ruffled.
Given this sensitivity, I was a bit surprised last Saturday at the Prism (the self proclaimed heart of real bluegrass in Charlottesville) when I saw the Seattle-based threesome Danny Barnes and Thee Old Codgers. Their attitude towards blending styles was certainly more adventurous than some.
Barnes, a Texas native with Tennessee and Alabama blood, grew up absorbing recordings of country and bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, and Jimmie Rodgers. Yet during much of the ’90s he fronted the Bad Livers— a group whose music rocked as much with the Motor City punks the MC5 and Iggy Pop as it did with Bill Monroe.
Barnes remixed his roots with his Codgers, but he retains some Bad Liver. The blend he has made is low-key, but still not what you’d call traditional American music. The set on Saturday included a few non- to not-quite bluegrass items: plugged-in instruments (including Keith Lowe’s slim, headless electric bass), a complete lack of harmonized vocals, a cover of seminal UK glam-rock T. Rex’s “Broken Hearted Blues,” and a digitally recorded drum-backing track.
“I'm a rabid Bluegrass fan,” Barnes explains on his website (www.dannybarnes.com), “but I can only take so much… if we wanna be like Bill Monroe, let's make up our own style of music, and write a mess of cool pieces, and make killer records and tour our butts off.” The site also includes several essays he’s written on topics ranging from audience behavior and attitudes to DIY money-saving tips.
Barnes, who played the Prism last year, shows both affection and respect for the music, though his respect manifests in its own way, and the mid-sized crowd showed him the same, in its own way. They prided themselves on their appreciative etiquette. While the artist performs, the seated audience remains still and silent. At each number’s close, the audience applauds enthusiastically, drowning out Barnes’ chatter. Then they stop. The drop of a banjo pick would be perfectly audible until Barnes starts up again.
Tall, lanky, and sporting a crew cut, Barnes bears a certain resemblance to ex-Seattle Supersonic swingman Detlef Schrempf. But Barnes’ music has the distinct twangy flavor, even on the T. Rex cover “Broken Hearted Blues”— one of the several songs from Barnes’ latest album Things I Done Wrong that feature instrumentation like strings and piano. The nostalgic ballad didn’t suffer from the spareness enforced by the three-man lineup. Instead, the intimate surroundings lent space and size to Barnes’ weary croon and focus to Jon Parry’s liquid, melancholy violin solo.
Barnes is skilled on both the banjo and the acoustic guitar; he led but didn’t dominate. The group performed “Devil on the Mountain,” an instrumental album track penned by Parry that showcased the band as a redlining, picking, sawing engine. The small ensemble is fast as hell, and the breakneck speed fired up a physical tension in the crowd that’s impossible to perceive on disc. The end of Parry’s bow flitted in a manic fly’s orbit, while Barnes was the strange, classic model of bluegrass efficiency, standing stock still except for his churning hands.
Though Barnes looks zany in photographs, on this evening he sounded a little weary as he detailed the band’s recent 5,000 mile-long rental car itinerary. To lighten the mood, bassist Lowe, who’s worked with Fiona Apple, banged his head into the mic for comic effect. His was the most active stage presence, executing mock heavy metal moves like barefooted leg kicks and head-banging thrashes during particularly incendiary moments.
Barnes and Parry also borrowed moves from rock. Watching Barnes’ left hand, one could easily imagine it traveling up and down the neck of a Stratocaster, and he’s admitted that his style on the banjo owes some debt to maneuvers more commonly seen and heard on electric guitar. Parry made wild sounds with his fiddle that weren’t far removed from guitar-hero rock: the bent, quicksilver moans and yells he coaxed from it were worthy of lighters-held-high tribute.
In a space that’s been graced by almost every contributor to the popular O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, it was difficult not to compare Barnes, favorably, with the phenomenon. His warm vocals have a nasal drawl and a deceptive range that he ran up to falsetto, down into fuzzy low ranges, and back again. They bore a resemblance to Dan Tyminski (a member of Alison Krauss’ Union Station and the lead vocalist on the soundtrack’s most visible hit, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”). Barnes seemed more kin in spirit, though. His eclectic, discriminating tastes brought together similar strains of music in a lively package. It just happens that he and the Codgers often see similarities in uncommon places.