Hearing some bluegrass bands, and a challenge for 2020

Music in Muscatine

By Rod Peck

Before Terri and I left for our annual holiday trip to visit my parents in Southern Illinois, I had told her we were going to hear the bluegrass bands scheduled to perform at Wildwood BBQ & Saloon in Iowa city on the Friday two days after Christmas. Driving home on the day between these events, we were both so exhausted from all the holiday activity what we really felt like doing was nothing, but I knew if we didn’t go, I’d regret it. Fortunately, we made it out and were rewarded with some really beautiful live music.

The evening started with a group of students from North Liberty High School’s orchestra called Liberty High’s String Theory, who have as their motto “world domination through vibrating wooden boxes.” Few things bring joy to this old music geek’s heart like young people who are interested in roots music, and so their set of mostly traditional music was nothing less than a joy. They’re led by the orchestra’s director, Annie Savage, who also played fiddle in the group, and each song was an absolute delight as they pulled out one beautiful tune after another. Seeing these young folks put their hearts into such great songs as “In the Pines” and “House of the Rising Sun” made our determination to get out that night worthwhile. And the Deadhead in me was especially pleased with their interpretation of “Friend of the Devil,” on which the fiddles really added a nice touch.

Ms. Savage’s own roots are in bluegrass, and she is the fiddler in a group known as The Savage Hearts,

whom I’ll be looking to catch in performance in the new decade. Part of what made this show special was the sheer delight she was clearly taking in her orchestra members playing bluegrass music and putting so much of their hearts into it. If opportunity presents itself, I’ll be taking in another show by Liberty High’s String Theory again in the near future.

The second band on the bill was The Woodland Spring, a trio from Eau Claire, WI. with whom I was familiar with only through a friend who is a knowledgeable bluegrass fan. I had a feeling that if he liked them so much, they had to be good, and I wasn’t disappointed. The group features the tremendous mandolinist Caleb Horne, Timothy Litscher on rhythm guitar, and Daniel Turner on the bass. Their music is a mixture of progressive and traditional bluegrass sounds, with originals making up most of the set. Litscher is the group’s best singer, while Horne is their best instrumentalist. Grateful Dead tunes do seem to translate beautifully into bluegrass, and their version of “Shakedown Street” really had our toes tappin.’ I had to look it up on YouTube once I got home!

The members of The Woodland Spring have been playing together off and on for 15 years, but have  been in their current formation for only a bit over a year, and the Wildwood was their first gig beyond the Wisconsin state line. They are currently recording an album, are looking to become established on the bluegrass festival circuit, and could possibly add a banjo to the mix in 2020. The Woodland Spring is definitely a band with a bright future that I’ll be keeping an eye on and when they play our area again, I’ll be in the audience.

The final act of the evening was a local quartet known as Sneezy Dollars. I’m still not sure what to make of them. The first thing that stands out about them is they have traditional bluegrass instruments–banjo, fiddle, upright bass. . . and trumpet! I’d never heard a bluegrass band with a horn before and was skeptical at first, but it did seem to work surprisingly well in this setting. In fact, trumpeter Rachel Richards has a fine, clear tone on her instrument, and this format definitely has possibilities I had not previously considered. Now, at the risk of being overly critical or sounding like a fuddy-duddy, the group seems to be still searching for their identity as far as how to make the most of this unique lineup. Also, while each individual musician definitely has the skill necessary on his or her instrument, at times they appeared to be goofing around onstage, and between each song, they would indulge in seemingly endless chatter amongst themselves that did nothing for those in attendance. This could have been due to the sparse crowd making them feel like they were in a rehearsal, but it was annoying all the same. I’m interested in how this group’s music advances, but to be sure, they have some work to do in order to make the most of their collective talents and develop their onstage presentation.

Speaking of the sparse crowd that night, one of my goals in writing this column is to increase awareness of the many fine music venues we have in this area, with Wildwood near the top. Granted, it was only two days after Christmas, University of Iowa students are on winter break, and even I had trouble getting motivated to get out of the house and down to the joint for some live music. However, all too often, I’ve been to shows with disappointing attendance. And so I, Rod Peck, the old music geek, want to hereby encourage the Voice Of Muscatine’s readers to make a New Year’s Resolution with me to get out and see as many live music performances as possible in 2020. And, if you see Terri and me out someplace, be sure to say hello.