Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
fter 6 albums since 2007, the Infamous Stringdusters decided to do something different this time around. With "Ladies & Gentlemen," the acoustic/bluegrass band paired a bunch of female vocalists ranging from Lee Ann Womack to Mary Chapin Carpenter on each song.
One of those vocalists, Nicki Bluhm, is helping the Stringdusters transform the studio to the road and showed that the live version may be even better than the recorded effort.
Over the course of two sets, the Stringdusters intertwined selections from "Ladies & Gentlemen" thanks to Bluhm with their own songs and covers. The Stringdusters incorporated a bluegrass vibe throughout, mixed at times with a Grateful Dead vibe. To underscore that, they turned in a sturdy take on "Scarlet Begonias." They also explored their country side with the leadoff song of the second set, Johnny Cash's "Big River."
Bluhm eventually came out a chunk of the way through the first set with her somewhat smoky, confident sounding voice. Bluhm cut a lithe figure in her black outfit, but more importantly her vocals carried the songs, including "Ladders in the Sky," more powerful than Claire Lynch was on the disc. Bluhm didn't let up in the second set either (including "Still the One," which she sings on "Ladies & Gentlemen," only in concert she was seemingly freed of the confines of the studio), making one think this pairing ought to have a long shelf life.
Having a band where everyone stepped up to the plate time and again helped. At one point, Jeremy Garrett introduced Andy Hall as the greatest (or something like that) Dobro player in the world. He may have competition from Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes, but Hall was simply super throughout the night. His playing was lyrical, sometimes veering into bluegrass psychedelic territory when he paired up with acoustic guitarist Andy Falco.
In fact, all five Stringdusters showed their musical mettle on their respective instruments. Falco made his acoustic guitar come alive from the get go of "Sentenced to Life With the Blues," on which he also had vocal honors. Often, bands place acoustic in the background. Not so with the Stringdusters.
Chris Pandolfi on banjo sparked a lot of the songs as well, facing off with Hall near the end of the show with a smile on his face while Hall maintained a serious, determined demeanor. The smile was well earned.
Garrett handled lead vocals (everyone did except Pandolfi) and punctuated the songs with a lot of lively fiddle. Travis Book manned upright bass and underpinned the songs. Together, the Stringdusters had the chance to shine on instrumentals, such as "Old Cluck Hen," and sometimes jammed out before eventually hitting the pedal.
The encore was the traditional "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad" with Bluhm and opening act Paper Birds aboard with almost everyone having the chance to sing a stanza. And the crowd helped out as well. The only problem was that there was absolutely nothing to feel bad about on this evening. Great music, instead, can make you feel real good.