Behind the Glass

Talent Swarm

I’ve seen so many musicians play music in my life. Being the son of a composer and maestro meant that I was usually Assistant #1 when a production needed some help. And for six years I was home-schooled, which meant I could also do things like attend ACDA (American Choral Directors Association) conferences, or skip out with Dad to see a musical performance in the middle of the day.

When I reflect on this I am transported to one memory from about age 7, when my dad brought me to the dress rehearsal of a local Masterworks Chorale performing something I don’t remember. What I do remember is Dad leaning over and whispering his observations to me the whole time.

“You see the alto on the third row just to the left of the basses? You see how her posture is slumped — you can hear that she’s flat occasionally. There! Did you hear that?”

Or: “You can hear that they need practice ending their consonants in unison. That’s a mark of excellent choirs — ending their S-es and other consonants together at the end of phrases.”

Speaking of phrases, I am paraphrasing — it’s an old memory. But the point is, my musician father lifted the veil on music for me whether I asked him to or not. I’m thankful that he did. Yes, I watch and listen to music with entirely different thoughts coursing through my head than the average person. But when I’m the only one in the club who’s not dancing because I’m staring at the musicians, I don’t feel a burden. I very much enjoy the analytical view of music that my dad helped build.

Because music was demystified for me as a child, I naturally kept the musical experiences flowing once I left home. I blogged about or made music throughout my college years, and I never had a living situation that didn’t include a decent pair of speakers. Thinking about the reconditioned Larger Advents at the 9th Street house… what ever happened to those?

Anyway. I know what a good musician looks like. At this point I can tell if a player is good just by looking at him play — no sound involved. I know this stuff well enough to confidently sort the talented from the pedestrian. And since my live video recording studio became a national stop on the map for traveling bands in a few genres, I was lucky enough to have a front row seat for some of the country’s best up-and-comers.

Which is why I’m going nuts about a recent quiet announcement of four Colorado-only shows from a brand new mash-up dream quartet featuring four of the best players I’d ever recorded. This acoustic A-Team’s first four shows in CO are a sign that progressive bluegrass and acoustic music still has a future in this pop-centric world.

Let me back up a bit and touch on the players and their bands. This will be a two-part column, so grab a drink and settle in.

I’ll start with a string ensemble that gave me one of those “Oh, yeah — I’m supposed to be working here!” moments during the recording when my attention was so drawn to the music. Sadly, it’s a group that no longer plays together, but they still have plenty to offer with two published albums available for listen.

When The Deadly Gentlemen from Boston, MA, stopped by to lay down some music for our mics and cameras, they showed off the type of national, elite-level talent that our studio was aiming for.

Progressive bluegrass, acoustic heavy metal — these guys didn’t like to be pegged as a jug and washboard troupe. The collection of East Coast virtuosos played the traditional instruments of bluegrass, but with them they crafted lyrically smart, poppy songs and riff-based, vocal harmony-rich …music.

The band was led by a guy named Stash (more on him in the next issue), and featured some of the serious national players of their young ages.  Speaking of young, the group was also a collection of college buddies (albeit from impressive music training institutions), with all the poking and snickering and finger-pulling you might expect.

Readers with sharp eyes will recognize bassist Sam Grisman (son of famed mandolinist David Grisman) and mandolin player Dominic Leslie on mandolin from a previous group I wrote about, The Brotet. Sam is the one featured in the new quartet I’m getting to, but stay with me here. The broader point is that this new generation of great players has and will continue to intermingle and form bands with each other going forward. They’re the new crop of pickers bringing old music to future audiences.

And like the Brotet, The Deadly Gentlemen was comprised of players not only insanely skilled but refreshingly creative. Talent knows talent, but some of these guys are smart, too. When was the last time you heard of a banjo player who graduated from Yale and earned a PhD in biology from MIT??

The Deadly Gentlemen’s second-most famous member, Greg Liszt, is a real character. Upon reaching Yale, Greg was inspired by a banjo-playing future Yale president, and early on, joined his group “The Professors of Bluegrass.” Years later, when he received his PhD in molecular biology, Greg immediately retired from science and hit the road to play banjo for Bruce Springsteen.

For several years before forming the Gentlemen, Greg was instrumental (nyuk, nyuk) in the success of roots bluegrass group Crooked Still. In the years since our recording he continued to tour and compose. Still no science for this guy, or at least not as his main gig – he’s currently a professor of banjo at Berklee College of Music. Greg offers a banjo perspective that is unique, for example infusing his playing with “math-based” licks and progressions.

Greg is just one of The Deadly Gentlemen, and each member has a story. But the main story is of birds of a feather flocking together and making music through the years. Take a look at the video below and dig into the world of these talented youngsters. Keep an eye on Grisman, because he’ll show up again. Have a good two weeks!