The SteelDrivers have brought another palette to traditional bluegrass instruments, and while the group doesn’t stray beyond shouting distance from bluegrass, the playing field seems broader than the lines traditionalists embrace. Maybe that’s why the swanky Joe’s Pub was packed to capacity; let’s face it, Manhattan isn’t a hotbed of Hee Haw.
The SteelDrivers have had a few personnel changes over the years, and one of their relatively recent additions, lead vocalist Gary Nichols, came with important pieces of baggage: a guitar, his hometown (Muscle Shoals, AL) and the blues, each of which benefit the band. Their upcoming release, the aptly-named The Muscle Shoals Recordings (Rounder), reflects the same soul and blues ache so evident in the town made famous by Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and the Staples family, among many others.
The album is complicated, fast and precise, and I was pleased that the live performance not only didn’t falter but took off and soared on most tunes, both old and new. “Drinking Alone” (co-written by former SteelDriver Chris Stapleton) showcased Nichols’ guitar, Brent Truitt’s mando and fiddler Tammy Rogers, but almost every tune offered extensive solos by the very talented individual players. (Pardon the pre-judgment of my fellow New Yorkers, but I was mildly surprised that everyone knew when to applaud.) “Heaven Sent,” late in the evening and from an earlier album, turned out to be a favorite performance. The group played off one another in extended solos, and looked for all the world like a bunch of friends just having a great laugh and a fun time—they only happened to be playing music. I had the impression that they have exhibited the same joy if they’d been riding a rollercoaster or doing cannonballs into a lake with their kids.
“Here She Goes,” a Nichols co-write, appears on Muscle Shoals as a wrenching, impending-divorce song, but onstage the band’s exuberance took over and introduced lightning bluegrass licks that, while perfect in their execution, seemed to me too fast and furious to savor the bittersweet moment the lyrics portray…but maybe I’m too literal. Either way, it’s a wonderful song.
The SteelDrivers will tour throughout the summer, and mid-July, when they play the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, NY, I’ll be there clappin’ and stompin’ and havin’ a ball, just like the band and everyone else in the crowd. What will you be doing?