Tuesday night the Kennedy Center had another one of its Country Music series of shows.... two actually.
The first was a Country Writer's Night at the Millennium Stage. The writers were Matraca Berg (who was joined by her husband, Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), Shawn Camp, and Guy Clark. They all sang and played in turn, the others helping out where it fit and as they knew the song. Matraca sounded good. Shawn Camp played well enough, and did some great accompaniment to others, but his songs sounded way too country corporate for my taste. Then we'd get around to Guy Clark who would quietly blow them all away.
An hour later the none-too-cheap show started in the Eisenhower Theater just up the steps from the Millennium Stage. It is billed as 'String Masters'. And with Bela Fleck (of the Flecktones) on Banjo, Jerry Douglas (recently with Allision Krauss) on Dobro, Sam Bush on Mandolin, Stuart Duncan on Fiddle, Bryan Sutton on Guitar, and Mark Schatz on upright bass thats an apt description. I only really knew the first three, but am thoroughly impressed with them, so picking up tickets was a no-brainer.
The first set was great. Sam Bush was all dressed up for the cherry blossoms with a pink, blue, and white hawaiian shirt. Jerry Douglas was acting as the emcee. And Sam was doling out the solos, and there were plenty to go around. Bela was beside him quietly being a genius. Stuart, Bryan, and Mark all played beautifully. But the whole thing seemed a bit stifled... the crowd dutifully clapping for each and every solo, until they got tired of that. I thought the room was just too formal a place.
After intermission things had changed. The first set was good, but the second was stellar. The crowd seemed to have loosened up a bit, and the band loosened up a lot. It started with a Sam Bush/Jerry Douglas duet. Jerry joked "We don't need THEM." Bela got a solo that went so far as to include the use of his nose when the stretch for that chord was just a bit too far. Stuart and Bela did a number and was quickly joined by Mark Schatz doing a flatfoot clogging rhythm. The whole band came back and everything was much looser, it even got downright silly at times... with Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas started unbuttoning each others shirts and there were references to Brokeback Mountain. You could see they were all having a good time. The audience appreciated it all too.