Friday, August 14, 2009

Earl Scruggs proves he still loves picking and grinning at Meijer Gardens

In the beginning of bluegrass was Earl Scruggs.

And bluegrass godfather Bill Monroe said, approximately, "Let there be banjo music in the band." And Scruggs' unusual three-finger style helped catapult Monroe's sound to a previously unknown level of acceptance.

And Monroe said it was good.

Earl Scruggs

Highlight No. 1: Excellent ensemble work on "John Hardy was a Desperate Little Man," from Earl Scruggs' authoritative banjo intro to virtuoso solos all around, especially flying-fingers acoustic guitar riffs by Jack White.

Highlight No. 2: Watching Scruggs the master when he wasn't in the spotlight, laying down creative and tasteful embellishments with the maturity of a legend as others took turns on the high-stepping "Doing My Time."

Time on stage: 1 hour, 20 minutes for Scruggs; 1 hour, 6 minutes for opening act Greensky Bluegrass

It still is good. Though Grammy-winning Scruggs has been plagued by back, hip and heart problems and is a little less able than he once was to play like a flame-thrower, two things were abundantly clear during Thursday night's Summer Concert Series in Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park's amphitheater:

• The Country Music Hall of Famer has hot licks left in his 85-year-old rolling and hammering-on fingers.

• And he still gets a young-at-heart kick out of picking and grinning.

The event, favored by blue skies and balmy temperatures, was part concert, part tribute and part love-in. Scruggs and cohorts provided the concert. An audience of more than 1,200 supplied the tribute and love.

The crowd was well broken in by a strong, 1-hour, 6-minute opening set from the talented, up-and-coming five-piece Greensky Bluegrass, of Kalamazoo. This is a big-name in the making, with a tight sound and intriguing lyrics. And check out impressive dobro player Anders Beck.

When Scruggs kicked into "Salty Dog Blues," the audience jumped to its feet for a welcoming ovation. There followed a 20-song master's class in bluegrass virtuosity from perennial dobro player of the year Rob Ickes, Grand Ole Opry fiddler Hoot Hester and acoustic guitarist-vocalist Jack White, with rock-steady support from Nashville drummer John Gardner and Scruggs' sons, bassist-vocalist Gary and acoustic-electric guitarist and vocalist Randy.

A gentleman in appearance (black suit, tie, dress shoes), Earl Scruggs also proved a gentleman collaborator. He relished the other players' times in the spotlight, masterfully adding plucked beats here, chattering rhythms there, subtle accents in some places, bold insertions in others, always appropriate to his companions' work.

From a Doc Watson hit, "Streamlined Cannonball," to Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," to the poignant "In the Pines" -- "where the sun never shines and you shiver when the wind blows" -- to the honky-tonk "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music," the entourage played with the assurance of veterans, the crispness of accomplished musicians and the camaraderie of respected friends.

Scruggs took up an acoustic guitar and displayed artful fingering in breaks on the Carter Family's "You Are My Flower" and an old gospel tune, "Bound in Jail."

The audience was primed to sing along after Scruggs' banjo broke into his "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" from the 1960s TV show "The Beverly Hillbillies." From there, it was a short hop into his signature "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which ended in its patented banjo tag and to a deafening standing ovation.

The company responded with a six-minute encore jam on the rapid-fire "Lonesome Reuben," highlighted by rock-tinged bursts from Randy Scruggs' electric guitar and a full-metal-jacket firestorm from Ickes' dobro. And while they were busy pickin', some 1,200 cheering concertgoers couldn't stop grinnin'.

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