The Bluegrass Ball
Cornmeal, The Travelin’ McCourys, White Lightning Boys, & The New Old Cavalry
January 29, 2011
"The Bluegrass Ball," with Cornmeal and The Travelin’ McCourys co-headlining the bill, shook the heartland with a boot stomping romp through traditional and progressive takes on mountain music. These two bands along with opening acts, White Lightning Boys and The New Old Cavalry, the message of the evening was made clear in the form of a traditional old fashioned ‘round the fire pickin’ party. The sharing of the stage — with the microphone as the center point of an interweaving construct — created not only the visual appeal of the classic setup but also the blended sound that generates vocal harmony and with a little unity, can make a whole lot of magic.
Merely miles from the campus of Indiana University, The Bluebird has hosted hundreds of memorable evenings in its time as a premier music venue in the region. Due to its proximity to an army of music loving students, many great one-off bills end up on the stage. The Bluegrass Ball was a fine example of both the tradition of the venue and the united musical heart of bluegrass. With an equal ability to service the song, each act on the bill seemed to approach the stage from different angles, but when called upon, could gel into any array that was needed. White Lightning Boys took the first shift and the local boys quickly had the crowd dancing in circles, faces frozen in grins of pure glee. Thickening the Boys sound for the evening was fiddler Patrick Hoepner of The New Old Cavalry, pulling double duty as he was also playing in The Cavalry’s acoustic set, an impromptu addition to the bill to help keep the music going nonstop until the wee small hours of the night.
A loud merriment filled the high rafters of the scene as Cornmeal filed onto the stage. Smiles and joyful waves were in abundance. As a band, Cornmeal has many facets and a variety of ways to grab one’s attention and bring him into the ranks of the converted. Though they are known for their amplified high jinks, never let it be said that Cornmeal couldn’t stand in the sacred customary semicircle and testify as well as the finest. This is exactly what they did on this night in Bloomington. Alternating vocals provided by guitarist Kris Nowak and banjoist Dave Burlingame pooled with aching violin solos provided by Allie Kral filled out the songs about desperation and love. The axis of their songbook sits squarely at the heart of the themes of music that is as old as the hills. Adding a jazzy element to the proceedings, drummer J.P. Nowak simplified his rig and played only a box and snare with a pair of brushes. Though this took away from his typical thunderous percussive style away, it was a pristine showcase of his overall skill. Chris Gangi’s Bass licks were far more distinct than during an amplified set, and the dancers in the corn stalking crowd moved to the groove foundation groove that he laid out. Harmonizing around the microphone, Kral’s sweet feminine tone offset the gruffer male leads and the group ended the show to a raucous ovation.
As hurried hands cleared the stage, the pack of bluegrass lovers prepared for the McCoury brothers, mandolin player Ronnie and banjoist Robbie, to take the stage. With a legendary last name to live up to, many would have sought a career outside the legacy of these gentlemen’s father, authentic bluegrass luminary Del McCoury. Rather, the offspring chose to do anything but shy away from the challenge, embraced their name, and have used their lineage as an opportunity to learn from a master and an incredible cast of musicians as they grew up. In turn, what has happened is the development of two very fierce players in their own right. Rounding things out in this Travelin’ lneup are players of prowess, bassist Alan Bartram and fiddle player Jason Carter who both play with daddy Del as well. The high opinion that Carter commands among the music community was evidenced best by the respect Cornmeal’s Kral showed him, coming out, not to join him onstage but to simply watch. Her wide smile provided clear testimony as Carter took one delicate precise bowing after the other, speaking in a clean cutting voice
As they often do when playing as The Travelin’ McCourys instead of their other gig, as Del McCoury’s Family Band, they brought a guitarist with them to coagulate their sound. Kenny Smith filled both the role and range with his sharply picked and strummed style; providing a hard and keen edge for Carter to sound off against. As the set progressed, the pace quickened. It was as a strong breeze is to a new kindling flame, and instantly the band embraced the speed and the energy. Finishing with a flourish, Ronnie offered up that they needed to "make room for those Cornmeal folks." Leaving the stage and walking down the wall, a line of well wishers had formed, thanking the players for their fine efforts, offering high fives and hearty handshakes for a job well done.
One of the unmentioned positives about a straight bluegrass show is the speed in which the minimal equipment involved in the process can be removed and changed out. Cornmeal’s amps and the large array of concert light had sat quietly in the back of the room and in a matter of minutes, the few cords and mic stands were gone. Following a short but very personal thanks from bassist Gangi who noted that the McCoury brothers were some of the first friends Cornmeal made in the music industry, the biggest cheer of the night signaled the arrival of a fully electrified and psychedelically imparted bluegrass experience that was about to begin.
As last minute tunings were applied and spiraling lights were sprung into action, the air was statically charged. Blowing into the first note, Cornmeal started off like a bomb blast. Whereas the previous bands’ and Cornmeal’s own first set had established the true beauty of a simple sound, the driving force of the full drum kit coupled with Gangi’s now thunderous bass lines ripped into the heart of all who stood in the building as the very foundation of the sound we had been listening to previously was changed in an almost staccato like manner.
What was most ingratiating, however, was that Cornmeal did not simply throw the listeners to the deep end of the pool, as some bands with the depth of talent these players possess have been known to do. Instead, they were sure to develop and build songs and strengthen themes slowly, careful to draw on and not neglect the energy that had been building throughout the entire night. Almost without fail, in each song whether in an ode to lost love such as "Oh Leah Lee" or a boot stomping number like "Johnny Put Down Your Gun," no matter where it begins there is a moment when an instrumental passage will captivate the crowd. Whether it was the due to the slide technique of Kris Nowak or one of the many dazzling moments that Allie Kral provided with her effect laden and jaw dropping runs on her fiddle, in those moments they had the Bluebird crowd in the palm of their hands.
As promised, the McCoury brothers and Jason Carter returned to the stage to help finish the night off in style. At one point, each player took two or three long runs, traded smiles and counted gestures to hand off the reigns to the next in line. After a riotous set closer, the mixed band took a much deserved break before returning for the encore.
Another long held ritual of the bluegrass world is the reading of the songs of other with equal parts homage and interpretation. Cornmeal has long held to closing with a cover whenever possible and this night they choose to conclude the whole evening up with a loose and wild rendition of the Rolling Stones classic "Sympathy for the Devil." When it got time for someone to take the solo at the heart of the piece, there seemed to be no question as to who it would be. Stepping forward, as she does dozens of times per show, Allie Kral let loose a solo that had every other musician on the stage watching with a mixture of delight and smiling assurance, each completely comfortable in the knowledge that what they were seeing was both astounding and real. The bouncing bundle of blind speed and true fury that is Allie can take over at any moment as she did on this evening. When so doing, it seems as though the entire world pauses, even if for just a moment. Riding her energy and a humorous echoing of the songs sing-along "ooh, who," the two bands blended into one closed out the evening on a high with drums building to a crescendo along with the furious strumming that took place across the length of the stage. It was nearly impossible for any fan to have left feeling the slightest bit shortchanged; and no player left the stage looking as though they had anything but fun.