They Tore It Up! – A Concert Review: The Steep Canyon Rangers, 05-30-14

A FREE show from one of my all-time favorite bands just a half mile from my house? Yes, please!!!

Last night, the Steep Canyon Rangers gave one helluva bluegrass performance to close out the Library of Congress’s free concert season. (No, the brilliant Steve Martin wasn’t there, but let’s remember – the Steeps were nominated for a Grammy with him, but won one without him!) Also performing were Grammy nominees Dailey and Vincent, whom I will review in a separate post, and Irish traditionalists Donna Long and Jesse Smith.

Though I’d heard a little from the Steeps before last January, they didn’t really come to my attention until then. I was going through an extremely hard breakup with the woman I thought I was going to marry, and was working about 70 hours a week. I needed an escape – badly – so I threw work in the trashcan for an evening and went with a buddy to see the Steeps at the Birchmere.

For those few hours, everything was okay, everything felt right again — it was the first time in months that I had been truly happy for more than a few minutes. As I noted in the essay that kicked off this blog, music has always been there for me in my tough times – and for their part in that, the Steeps will forever hold a special place in my heart.

This weekend marked my fifth Steep Canyon Rangers show in 16 months, and that feeling of truly being at home during them has never gone away. By that, I don’t just mean it feels comfortable; it’s more than that. It feels right – like coming home after travel. When an SCR show ends, instead of saying “Time to go home!” I say, “But it’s too late to go out again!”

Steep Canyon Rangers fiddler Nicky Sanders with the author, Nathan Empsall. April 2013.

Even with lasting sadly less than an hour, last night’s concert was as phenomenal as ever. The LOC crowd was the first I’ve seen that didn’t laugh at the opening line of the opener “As I Go” – “I always try to do what’s best, I’ve mostly done the opposite.” But by the finale, when Nicky Sanders tears up “Auden’s Train” with the best damn fiddling you’ll ever see, they sure were howling at his classical music riffs. Graham joked that Nicky was going to steal one of the Library’s famous instruments – “Stradivariuses? Stradivarii?” All of the band is amazing at what they do, so I hate to single out any one of them as the most talented – but as grave an injustice as that is to the rest of the band’s superb talent to say, it would be an even graver injustice to Nicky NOT to say it.

There are a lot of great coal songs out there, but “Call the Captain” is probably my favorite – plus it does a great job showcasing Woody Platt’s smooth vocals. Speaking of Woody, his guitar broke a string at one point, but he compensated extremely well for the rest of the song. Bravo, sir.

I’ll even applaud the band’s drums. What? Drums in a bluegrass band? Well, yes – the Steeps are a great cross between bluegrass and newgrass, pushing the limits but still respecting the genre, and in that spirit Mike Ashworth joined on drums last summer. They worked particularly well as retroactive additions to “Rescue Me” and the instrumental “Knob Creek,” and are an integral piece of the latest album’s title track, “Tell the Ones I Love.”

When all was said and done, the Steeps received a thunderous standing ovation that didn’t let up until they all came out for a well-deserved curtain call.

Nathan Empsall and Graham Sharp

The author, Nathan Empsall, with Steep Canyon Rangers banjo player Graham Sharp. May 2014.

I only have two small negative things to say. The first is that I think the bass was mixed a little too loud, especially in the beginning. (Also, it’s just now occurring to me that the Charles, also a prolific and talented songwriter, doesn’t get that many bass solos – hopefully that will be corrected on a future album!) Second, I really wish they had played “Between Midnight and the Dawn,” which was actually a runner-up for the title of this website. But the show was free and those are minor quibbles – the first and perhaps only negative things I’ll ever say about a Steep Canyon Rangers show!

If you’ve never seen the band life, you MUST. Obviously many groups are better live than recorded, but it’s amazing just how true that is for the Steeps. Don’t get me wrong, I love their albums – Nobody Knows You absolutely deserved that Grammy – but the two best things about the band just don’t come through as well in the studio. That’s how amazing Nicky Sanders is on the fiddle, and how wonderful Woody Platt, Graham Sharp, and Mike Guggino’s vocal harmonies blend together. Go. See. These. Guys.

The Library of Congress as a venue was a good thing, too. The band seemed truly honored to be there, including talking in the lobby afterwards. It certainly helped lift my spirits a little bit once I got to thinkin’ about it. By day, I work in politics, and I’ve grown a lot more cynical since moving to Washington. But sitting there in the middle of the Capitol complex, experiencing great American music with a diverse and appreciative crowd right in the historic place, everything that’s wrong with our society ceased to matter for a little while as the best things about what makes us us were put front and center. That’s what music does.

The Steep Canyon Rangers are Woody Platt on lead vocals and guitar, Graham Sharp on vocals and banjo, Nicky Sanders on fiddle, Mike Guggino on mandolin and harmony vocals, Charles R. Humphrey III on bass, and Mike Ashworth on drums.

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