I still can’t tell you what Dylan was talking about in “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” but after three long days spent 333 feet down in the Volcano Room for the production of Bluegrass Underground’s third PBS season, I do know just what a serious case of Subterranean Homesickness feels like. I miss the Volcano Room bad. I just want to go back and do it all over again.
Now, anyone who has made it down to Cumberland Caverns for a Bluegrass Underground
show knows that it’s a very special place. Like the Ryman, Colorado’s Red Rocks or New York’s Apollo Theater, the Volcano Room just seems to be one of those magical spaces for music, as much an alchemist’s cauldron as a stage.
But when the two Todds - Mayo and Jarrell - and director Jim Yockey and their crew add the extra edge and energy of TV production, that’s when sparks really fly.
A dozen acts played over the three days and right now all of that is being boiled down to the 12-show season, to begin airing this fall. So if you weren’t one of the lucky 650 folks who happily packed the cave each day, you’ll just have to wait until then. But unlike so many TV shows, even with all their post-production magic, nothing beats the feeling of Bluegrass Underground in real time.
If you’ve ever been to a live-music TV production you’ve had to sit through multiple versions of the same song, as technical glitches are ironed out. But over the 12 hours or so of music, I think less than half a dozen problems occurred and almost all of them came before the bands were even introduced.
The crew provided between-set entertainment as the left and right aisles to the stage saw a frenzied coordination of load-ins and load-outs. They moved so fast that at times it looked like one of those stop-motion stage-setups that seem to be a part of every concert video. But this was live in real time.
Shows were sold out months in advance, adding to the anticipation, as each group’s fans made the pilgrimage to the show, many from outside Tennessee.
There were too many musical highlights to relate here, but let’s give it a try. I’ve seen Old Crow Medicine Show about half a dozen times over the years, and I’d been hearing folks say that they just weren’t the same since Willie Watson left. Well they weren’t. No offense to the Willie wonks, but, for their Bluegrass Underground debut, Old Crow was soooooo much better than I’d ever seen them that it was like seeing them for the first time. Frontman and omni-instrumentalist Ketch Secor went cave crazy, telling the crowd the history of Cumberland Caverns and singing the praises of those “Warren County girls,” before tearing into what may be the all-time hottest set of music I’ve ever seen in the Volcano Room.
They closed a Friday night that included exceptional shows by newbies JohnnySwim, the amazing Andrew Bird (whose otherworldly whistling brought out the surrealness of being at a concert in a cave), and Bluegrass Underground’s unofficial house band, The SteelDrivers, who got things started way back in the summer of ’08.
Saturday opened with Leon Russell. and an all-star band featuring John Cowan, Pat Flynn and Butch Robins, three New Grass Revival alumni (Butch is also a former Blue Grass Boy). Russell’s high-tech grand piano got almost as much attention as he did, especially from the crew, who seemed to be snapping as many photos of the electronic guts of the piano as fans were snapping of the Rock Hall of Famer himself. Taking the show’s title literally, Russell focused on his Hank Wilson country and bluegrass discography with the same commanding presence that, back in the ‘60s, earned him the title, “The Master of Space and Time.” It should be one of the real highlights of the new BGU TV season.
But remember, on Saturday, he was just the opening act.
Michael Doucet and Beausoleil followed, with a set that included some material from their great new album, From Bamako to Carencro, including the Roswell Rudd jazz piece, “Bamako,” featuring cellist Ben Sollee. Alison Brown also sat in during their show.
Brown and her Quartet followed, in a blazing set of bluegrass/jazz fusion. Sollee closed out the day, but almost didn’t, when technical problems rendered his cello mute.
But he turned that disaster into one of the most memorable parts of the weekend, playing to the crowd with a mix of self-effacing standup comedy and a hilarious display of what he called “zydeco dancing.” Unfortunately, that’s one of the things you probably won’t be seeing on TV.
Once things were straightened out, his closing set was a stunner, one of several examples that weekend of great music that, like Andrew Bird and the Wood Brothers, genuinely defies categorization. Judging from this stage presence, songwriting and instrumental mastery, Sollee is an act to watch.
Sunday opened with a mini-bluegrass festival, as Yonder Mountain String Band and The Infamous Stringdusters played back-to-back sets. It was the first time I’d seen the ‘Dusters without mandolinist Jesse Cook, but fewer instruments seemed to open the band’s sound. Unlike the current bluegrass vogue of using as few microphones as possible, each member has his own wireless system, allowing a lot of stage movement. They used that opportunity very smartly, with a highly kinetic, energized show that was as watchable as it was listenable.
Then the North Mississippi All Stars, back to being an electric trio with the addition of bassist Lightnin’ Malcolm, rocked the cave, as guitarist Luther Dickinson played through what has to be the first Marshall amp in Volcano Room history, which after all, goes back several million years.
The Wood Brothers ended the three-day subterranean festival with a dizzying mix of just about everything that had been played on that stage that weekend - folk, jazz, country, blues, rock and multi-discipline improv. And there was more dancing, as Chris Wood laid down his antique German bass for some fancy stepping in the encore. Again, another moment that might not make it to the final cut, yet another reason to not miss a live Bluegrass Underground show. No matter how great the radio programs on WSM are, or the TV shows on your local PBS station, nothing beats being there.
And a big part of that is the people. Maybe the cave entrance acts as some sort of crankiness shield, but with a wildly diverse crowd of several generations of country folks, urban hipsters and unrepentant hippies represented, I have never seen a friendlier, mellower, happier bunch of people at any crowded, sold-out event. Heck, even the people in the bathroom lines seemed to be having a great time
So the best way to not miss next year’s big TV taping is to practice buying your Bluegrass Underground tickets as soon as possible, and there are two really good shows coming in April to hone your BGU ticket-purchasing chops. April 20, the Greencards play Bluegrass Underground, and, a week later, April 27, the all-star Boxcars make their return to the Volcano Room.
We’ll see you Underground.