On its third night, the BoB went big-time. With a full video crew on hand to broadcast the evening live on Kentucky Educational Television, the Best of Bluegrass fest took the Grammy-winning Steep Canyon Rangers, headed to the downtown bar Paulie's Toasted Barrel and sent world-class string music to the world — or at least to the region.
The North Carolina band proved to be a decidedly contemporary lot that regularly veered into folk, jazz, swing and multiple areas of Americana. The traditional touches — and there were many on display Wednesday night — surfaced discreetly.
Sometimes they were evident in the band's three- and four-part harmonies (the show-opening As I Go). In other instances, they appeared in the story lines of the songs (the emancipatory coal-mining saga Call the Captain). There also were plentiful examples in the instrumentation (a dervish of a fiddle solo by Nicky Sanders that quoted, among others, rock bands War and Led Zeppelin).
Still, the overall song structure and performance presentation was all bluegrass.
That was largely because the Rangers didn't retool bluegrass as a commodity to reach other markets, as so many younger acts are doing in seeking country music's popularity. Wednesday night, the Rangers did it the other way around.
In a set dominated by original material, the band took all kinds of modern inspirations and made them work effectively within a bluegrass framework. The instrumental Knob Creek, for instance, was built around the scholarly Euro-swing textures of mandolinist Mike Guggino, even though the tune had the looseness and lyricism of a traditional fiddle tune.
Later, during an extended instrumental intro to the very non-bluegrass-themed Las Vegas, the full band engaged in the kind of newgrass fusion that recalled the great '70s recordings of David Grisman.
But the big leap of faith that is required when absorbing the Rangers' music is the acceptance of drums. In traditional bluegrass circles, drums are viewed as heretical.
So much of the Ranger's music is rhythmic to begin with, though, so the subtle percussion accents (which consisted mostly of brushes on a snare) sounded quite natural. They certainly added to one of the evening's most traditionally minded songs, the train-themed title tune from the Rangers' 2013 album, Tell the Ones I Love. But they seemed equally in place as they heated up the organic (and modern) groove to I Thought She Loved Me.
Gold stars go to drummer Jeff Sipe, whose lengthy credits include tenures with Leftover Salmon, Keller Williams and Jeff Coffin. An eleventh-hour replacement for Michael Ashworth, who was ill, Sipe alertly navigated through the Rangers' many stylistic shifts with little more than an extended sound check before the show as rehearsal (Sipe, however, recorded with the Rangers on Tell the Ones I Love).
For the past five years, the band's involvement with Steve Martin's performance projects has made it something of a crossover curiosity. But Wednesday night's fine show reaffirmed the Rangers' own musical identity: a profile indebted to bluegrass but open-minded enough to enlist and assimilate any string sound around without surrendering to it.
The program at Paulie's Toasted Barrel for Best of Bluegrass — the festival that precedes this weekend's Festival of the Bluegrass — also featured the regional trio Local Honeys, whose strongly traditional (but cordially delivered) blend of fiddle, banjo and autoharp took bluegrass back to its country beginnings. What emerged was a light, learned Appalachian string sound that nicely balanced the modern times that were to follow.