Beaconwood sends grads out with a twang

by Amy Kingsley

It’s a lovely evening in the late spring. The members of Beaconwood tune their instruments in preparation for a musical performance in front of an attractive crowd lounging on a hillside.

They’ve been here before ‘– the wooden stage under an open sky. But last time they shared the boards with some of the most storied names in contemporary American folk music at Merlefest in Wilkesboro.

This time, however, they’re performing for festivalgoers of a different sort; Beaconwood mounts the stage ‘– er, the porch ‘– as the entertainment for a gaggle of graduating high school seniors. For any other band of lowerclassmen, the invitation to a Grimsley High School graduation party attended by its elite class members might well have been considered manna from the gods of high school popularity.

Somehow, though, it just doesn’t compare to pickin’ with legends like Doc Watson or opening a show at a brand new venue with one of the hottest bluegrass acts around. Still, these guys ease into it, quickly scrapping their attempts at musical perfection in favor of spontaneity and youthful enthusiasm.

I ease through a serving line of adult chaperones just as Beaconwood is introduced. They are in no particular order: Bennett Sullivan on banjo, Eric Robertson on mandolin and Ryan Stanford on guitar. The three met as students at Mendenhall Middle School, where their shared interest in bluegrass inspired the trio to institute a regular jam session.

‘“All we really knew how to play was ‘Rocky Top,”” Sullivan says of their first practice.

Tonight they inform the crowd that ‘“Rocky Top’” is not in the repertoire. Neither is ‘“Dueling Banjos.’” In fact, for their first set tonight, the boys deviate quite a bit from the gospel roots of bluegrass.

Perhaps that’s a nod to the crowd, a group celebrating in part the impending hedonism of college. In that spirit, the band kicks the set off with a galloping instrumental followed by a rendition of Tracy Chapman’s ‘“Give Me One Reason to Stay Here.’”

The members of Beaconwood command their instruments with a confidence uncommon for their age. Robertson tackles the vocal duties while eking a dozen-odd thrilling solos out of the tiny mandolin. Sullivan is no slouch on the banjo and Stanford demonstrates his musical versatility by occasionally trading in his guitar for an upright bass.

Before Beaconwood, Robertson played guitar in a couple of punk rock bands. A measure of that energy remains in his delivery; he’s quick with a wide grin and groans a bit on the sour notes.

Sullivan and Stanford, who bookend their lead vocalist this evening, have more stoic stage presentation. But they’ve already mastered the finer points of crowd banter.

‘“I heard that you guys had some excitement yesterday,’” Sullivan says, referring to Grimsley’s two-hour lockdown.

Between the chatter, they cycle through covers of ‘“Let it Be’” and ‘“Summertime’” as well as tearing through a klezmer track. Their sound is not folksy but diverse, encompassing bossanova, rock and world music.

Sullivan exhorts the crowd to make requests, but the suggestions flung back at him betray some ignorance of the Beaconwood oeuvre. The crowd strikes out with requests for Weezer, Britney Spears and AC/DC. The band tries to honor the last request, but falls apart in the first couple of measures.

‘“Any Queen fans out there?’” Sullivan asks. ‘“Well, that’s good. You might recognize the next one.’”

The trio translates ‘“Fat Bottom Girls’” to the crowd’s thundering approval. The crowded yard, a garden of lacquered toenails, is back in the band’s sway after several minutes’ digression into teenage chatter.

Sullivan’s father introduced the guitarist to bluegrass, and he masterminded the original after school jams. Besides Merlefest, the band played the Flying Anvil’s grand opening weekend as the preview for headliners the Avett Brothers. Sullivan sums up both experiences as ‘“pretty fun.’”

This summer they’re scheduled to play Fun Fourth, but all have travel plans that will occupy much of the hotter months. Robertson for one will be shopping in Santa Cruz, an event which is a yearly pilgrimage. Things will pick up again in the fall, Sullivan says.

That will be, incidentally, when the members of Beaconwood enter their senior year of high school. It’s too soon to say how long they will keep playing music with each other, but a musical career is something Robertson at least is considering.

In the meantime they’ll take a short break, eat some hot dogs and maybe a slice of sugar-frosted sheet cake and resume playing for the members of Grimsley High’s outgoing senior class.

To comment on this article, e-mail Amy Kingsley at