Picking a winner

by Ryan Snyder

“Who amongst us has done this before?,” Infamous Stringdusters bassist Travis Book asked the serried and excitable Thursday night crowd at the Blind Tiger. “For those who don’t know why you’re here, it’s okay. You want to throw down, you want to drink 1,000 beers, you want to sit quietly in back, you want to have a little make-out party in the corner, it’s your night.”

It’s no surprise that the Infamous Stringdusters are okay with their fans making their own rules; the jam-centric bluegrass group formed out of Nashville via Boston have been doing just that since their creation in 2007. Whereas they offered up the kind of honest renditions of “Telluride” and “Deep Elem Blues” that befit a Decca Records comp, these moments are more often the exception.

The Stringdusters more often live just outside the boundaries of tradition, expanding their sonic palette in ways unacceptable to the old boys. This is the band that made their last album with the help of a guy best known as a go-to board operator for almost all of the Dirty South. Guitarist Andy Falco’s sound rig is disproportionate to the complexity of his tone, but at times when he’s laying down breakneck sixteenth-note runs like in his jaw-dropping solo in “Well, Well,” you could almost swear his crystalline sound was coming from a banjo.

Instrumentally, the five-man unit is currently a cut above a good number of their more tenured peers. Jamgrass contemporaries like Yonder Mountain String Band or Greensky Bluegrass are more circuitous in their chemistry, mostly relying on full-band cooperation to execute their high wire jams. The Stringdusters, on the other hand, have mastered dynamic workflow. They compartmentalized “Sunny Side of the Mountain” (dedicated to our own Brian and Jill Clarey) into two- and three-piece jams that bobbed and weaved around one other before reassembling into one cohesive mountain masterpiece. Their harmonies, taut and versatile as they are, are far greater than the sum of their parts. They soared on songs like the forlorn “All the Same,” but occasionally struggled individually to reach those same peaks on “Some Wind.” The tradeoff for skillfully fending off tedium, it seems, is not yet having developed a gilded set of cords like those belonging to Jeff Austin.

Rarely did one man dominate a tune for too long, though “High Country Funk” and “The Hitchhiker” provided noteworthy exceptions with dobro player Andy Hall overlapping two basic melodies into one thick, beautifully messy harmonic foundation as the rest of the band kicked the counter melody around like a hacky sack. Like Miles Davis said, “It’s not the sh*t you play, it’s the sh*t you don’t play,” and the other Stringdusters were exhausting all of those possibilities.

For a band known for their quirky rock covers, the Stringdusters kept their 27 song set list on the conventional side, settling for a breezy cover of “He’s Gone” from their beloved Grateful Dead’s catalog. One surprise came early and likely flew well over the heads of most, however, with a fiddle-forward cover of the great picker Danny Barnes’ “Get It While You Can.” The original is cheeky and funky with its sexy subject matter seeping out from behind a thinly veiled food metaphor in the name of good taste. The Stringdusters’ take puts its head down and bull rushes the key of D, true to the spirit of the tune itself, with no time for subtle suggestion. Infamous, yes. Revered, maybe sometime soon.