You check the itinerary first and then do a double take. Is the bluegrass band Blue Highway really playing Cosmic Charlie's?
"Yeah, we're going rock 'n' roll," dobro ace Rob Ickes said of the band's visit Friday night to the club known more for its diet of local pop showcases, jam band shows and rock outings. "Just kidding."
Granted, bluegrass makes an occasional bow at Cosmic Charlie's. But the most common local outlet for Blue Highway's string music has been the annual Festival of the Bluegrass in June. But indoors? At what is predominantly a rock club?
"We're looking forward to it," Ickes said. "We just want to spread the word."
The "word" on Blue Highway has been continually favorable. Formed in 1994, it brought together a trio of champion songwriters, alert harmony singing and stylistic appeal that, while very much bluegrass, doesn't shy away from side trips into folk and country. And in Ickes, the band has unyielding instrumental firepower. He has won dobro of the year honors from the International Bluegrass Music Association 13 times during the past 16 years.
But the journey along Blue Highway didn't begin in Ickes' current home base of Nashville. He grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, a region known for mining progressive ideas for bluegrass tradition. He sensed, however, that there was job security when he teamed with Blue Highway mates Tim Stafford (on guitar), Wayne Taylor (bass), Shawn Lane (mandolin, guitar and fiddle) and Jason Burleson (banjo). It was still a curious move; Blue Highway was then an untested commodity.
"It's funny. I just had a feeling when we started that this band was going to be a long-term thing. I don't know if any of the other guys did. But it's become like family. I really sense that once we're in the studio because there is always a level of trust you can count on. You know things are going to happen on a certain level. We keep challenging each other."
Ickes offers the band's most recent album, 2011's Sounds of Home, as evidence. It meshes songs and styles that shift from steadfast traditionalism (Lane's I Ain't Gonna Lay My Hammer Down) to folkish narrative (Storm, also by Lane) to rootsy efficiency (an Appalachian-flavored treatment of the blues standard Nobody's Fault But Mine). And for instrumental fire, there is Burleson's Roaring Creek, which lets loose Ickes' wiry ingenuity on the dobro.
"We have less of a game plan every time we go in to make a record," Ickes said. "We've got three great writers (Stafford, Lane and Taylor; four if you include Burleson and his instrumental compositions) who write a lot. Typically we have about 30 songs to choose from when we go into the studio. One of the hardest parts of making a record can be finding good material. We've been lucky in that respect.
"Then all of a sudden, it's like, 'Hey, we've got a country tune and a folk tune here.' But it's not like we plan all that out. We used to. Now we just go in and do it. That seems to work. The songs are always what keep us excited."
But part of what has made Ickes' move from the West Coast so rewarding is what he accomplishes outside of the band. An avid jazz enthusiast, he maintains an active solo career that most recently yielded an album of dobro/piano duets called Road Song. He also works on occasion with the string music trio Three Ring Circle with fiddler Andy Leftwich (from Ricky Skaggs' band Kentucky Thunder) and bassist Dave Pomeroy. Its 2011 album, Brothership, ventured far outside bluegrass parameters to cover such jazz delicacies as Ralph Towner's Anthem and John Scofield's A Go-Go.
"Anthem is just one of those songs that always freaked me out. It has this very simple melody. But there is something really deep about it."
If that didn't fill up every spot on Ickes' musical plate, he also serves as an auxiliary member of The Tony Rice Unit, the jazz/bluegrass hybrid whose records greatly inspired his playing. Ickes played with Rice at The Kentucky Theatre as recently as September.
"Tony's music has always meant so much to me, and to so many players of my generation," Ickes said. "His records are kind of the reason we play music.
"I guess I never really wanted to be dependent completely on one band for my musical stimulation, or whatever you want to call it. I'm into a lot of different things. That's the main reason I moved to Nashville from California. There is so much music going on there. I get to work with other artists and on solo projects. So when I go to work with Blue Highway, I know I can help us make better records. I can bring more to the table."