Holy tornado! Via and friends blow you away

On a shelf near the top of my bookcase, above the unread copy of Anna Karenina, but below the dog-eared Naked by David Sedaris, sits my collection of CD’s– the spoils of my career with the outstanding publication you hold in your hands.
Most of them are staying up there, a tribute to getting free stuff, but not much else. Few end up making the leap into my permanent collection. When one does, I try to shout the group’s praises from every rooftop, and this week the bluegrass group David Via & Corn Tornado made that always-welcome but rarely achieved leap.
David Via, the group’s songwriter, mandolin player, and lead vocalist, has racked up quite a few awards in recent years: first place in the 1997 and 2001 Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriter’s award, second place in the 2000 version of the same award. The Merlefest, for those not up on your roots music, is a yearly celebration of that genre, held at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.
This year the likes of Bruce Hornsby, Emmylou Harris, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and god knows how many others will be gracing their stage. So Via (pronounced “Vye”) has some nice trophies, or ribbons (or maybe gold dobros), or whatever they give out at Merlefest.
But what’s his music actually like? Intensely listenable, with splashes of near-genius. You’re left with an all around good feeling long after the record has stopped revolving.
Song two on the group’s 2001 CD, It All Comes Down To A Song, is the mildly meta, “I Wrote This Song.” Via’s mandolin leads off the piece, soon joined by Daniel Knicely’s simple guitar strumming, with John Flower’s soft bass notes flavoring the background. After one complete intro line, Dave VanDeventer’s sweet, slow fiddle enters on your left, and Corn Tornado is complete.
David Via’s honey-drenched (but in a manly way) vocals start soon after. “Well I wrote this song for I must do you wrong / ‘Cause I can’t be the man that you need me to be,” he croons/belts to a lover with a great– or at least pop-informed– melody. After two lines of solos, the chorus starts, and the group’s three-part harmonies (Via, Knicely, and Flower) sweep you away.
Other songs on the group’s album are equally enjoyable. “Virginia Ground,” which won the above-mentioned 2000 Merlefest award, is traditional-bluegrass informed, while “For Pete’s Sake” is pickers playing jazz. And these are just two of an album of varied but solid songs.
David Via & Corn Tornado play bluegrass, but it’s bluegrass influenced by more than just the ghost of Bill Monroe. Ranging from traditional to contemporary, with strong doses of other genres such as pop and blues, it’s bluegrass for the current millennium. It’s bluegrass for the rest of us.

David Via & Corn Tornado perform at the Prism Coffeehouse February 1. $14/$12 advance, 8pm.