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Scruggs turns racetrack into banjo heaven

Greek Theatre, Los Angeles, Sept. 6, 2002

By Dan MacIntosh

LOS ANGELES - Earl Scruggs' tradition-leaning bluegrass sounds were sandwiched between rock from LA’s recent past (Los Lobos) and LA’s distant past (a reunion of The Doors), during Harley-Davidson' 100-year celebration concert weekend. But even though he was given the unenviable task of trying to please a bunch of burly bikers, he was nevertheless called back for an encore. This was especially amazing when you also consider that the most of these fans were here to witness a long-awaited re-appearance by The Doors, who were due to follow.

Earl's son, Gary, (on bass) led Scruggs’ talented six-piece group. Gary Scruggs sang most of the leads, but he was also helped out by expert fiddler, Glen Duncan, and acoustic guitar master Bryan Sutton. Albert Lee (From “the great state of England,” as Gary Scruggs jokingly put it) held down electric guitar, Billy Thomas was the drummer, and Rob Ikes added dobro.

This group wisely chose a set list of mostly familiar songs, like “In The Pines,” “Salty Dog Blues” and Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” They saved their best-known tunes for last, which included “The Ballad Of Jed Clampett” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

This music was all built around Scruggs delightful banjo sounds. It took a few songs before the soundman picked up this icon’s playing properly, but once he did so, it turned this converted racetrack into banjo heaven. Earl also switched to guitar for a few selections, but it was his banjo work that left the biggest lasting impression.

Los Lobos preceded Scruggs with a nearly two-hour variety of traditional Mexican music, roots-rock sounds and even a little classic rock. For one of their classic rock choices, they brought up John Doe from X to sing “Born To Be Wild.” Doe quipped, “We knew somebody was going to have to do this song at some point during the festival, so it might as well be us.” Los Lobos also encored with The Who’s “My Generation,” dedicated to the late John Entwistle.

Tonight's restructured Doors lineup, which included Cult man Ian Astbury on vocals and former Police man Stewart Copeland at the drums, remained true to this much-adored band’s legacy – which can be both a good and a bad thing. On the positive side of the ledger, Astbury looks and sounds incredibly like Jim Morrison. If you closed your eyes for songs like “Roadhouse Blues” and “Love Me Two Times,” you might have been transported back in time to one of Hollywood’s original Sunset Strip clubs with the original four on stage. Ray Manzarek’s circus-like organ and Robby Krieger’s busy guitar work hasn’t lost a single step since the old days.

But when the musicians brought John Doe back, this time to read a little of Jim Morrison’s poetry to music, that band’s annoying excesses came back clearly into focus. And the Native American dancers that accompanied Doe’s reading only made matters worse. It looked and sounded bloated, and was simply hard to swallow - just as it's always been. The band was far better when it just stuck to more appealing straight blues-rock selections.

Upon first glance at this concert's lineup, one might well have exclaimed, “Strange Days,” indeed. But after you got past the strangeness of this event’s widely varying participants, there was certainly a lot of fine music played before a group of appreciative (and maybe more eclectic than previously assumed) bikers.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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