Matt Flinner Trio – Handmade Virtuosity (Show Review)
The term “roots musician” tends to make me think of a stripped down artist, taking inspiration from American folk and traditional forms to make personal music of a rough-hewn nature. The visual equivalent would be an old-school letterpress print or maybe the canvas of an inspired folk painter. Matt Flinner is a roots musician, but one cut from a different cloth. Flinner is more like a master draftsman creating exquisite etchings full of rich detail with hidden vignettes of cross-hatched abstraction that come together to form a beautiful image of compelling complexity. Despite his erudite virtuosity, you can still see the artist’s hand in his work. While “rough-hewn” would not be the proper expression to describe his artistry, “hand made,” with all of the charm and earthiness that implies, is an undeniable characteristic of the music. It is elegant but raw, complex but accessible.
I had the pleasure of seeing him at Nashville’s historic Station Inn several days ago in support of his trio’s newest album, Winter Harvest (Compass Records.) The performance was a tour de force of inspired acoustic roots music.
The band took the stage and immediately ripped into “Raji’s Romp,” the first track from Winter Harvest, without any introduction. The music spoke for itself as the tune builds tension with competing and interwoven runs between Flinner’s mandolin and the guitar of Ross Martin. Soon enough, the tune settles into a more melodic space with room for all of the instrumentalists to execute improvised breaks less about showcasing their individual virtuosity than serving the mood of the song. It is understandable that the track would introduce both this show and the album. It serves as a somewhat understated starting point that eases the listener into a world of thoughtful experimentation based equally on structural discipline and liberated instrumental lyricism. In short, the music of Flinner’s trio undoubtedly results from some serious studied acoustic music nerdery but also expresses a profound depth of emotional expression. It incorporates the best of both worlds as the rest of the show only reinforced.
The next tune offered by the trio was “Thursday Night at the Sip n’ Dip” which has a jazz-inflected staccato introduction that is repeated throughout the song. Like much of Flinner’s work, it finds a very natural meeting point between elements of jazz, bluegrass, and folk often veering in and out of those genres seamlessly and organically. Despite this heady mix of traditional American genres, the trio can simply get down and get raw with traditional tunes. The group next ripped into a traditional fiddle tune with runs and solos traded between Flinner and Martin, often overlapping with counterpoint melodies underpinning one another. It was one of the best moments of the evening.
In keeping with the traditional song choices, the band next showcased one of the most creative interpretations of a traditional bluegrass song I’ve yet to hear. Somehow, they managed to turn Bill Monroe’s “Blue Grass Special” into a jazz-inflected romp full of shifting rhythms and unexpected twists and turns. The tune sounded both timeless and very much of the moment.
The first set was rounded out primarily with original compositions from the band. A highlight of the set was the somewhat dissonant and very evocative “Wheels” from the new album. If memory serves, the composition was written by bassist Eric Thorin, who is as creative and soulful a bassist as one might ever encounter. While Flinner and Martin tend to get the lion’s share of the spotlight, it is Thorin’s inventive low-end work that keeps the music moving in pleasantly unexpected directions with subtle rhythmic shifts. An element of the trio I find most interesting is this fluctuating rhythmic “pulse” imbued in the band’s compositions, as opposed to a regimented sense of metronomic timing. Much of this quality seems indebted to Thorin and gives the tunes a feeling of being alive, conscious, and breathing.
Thorin was also given the opportunity to shine in the band’s most “chamber music” sounding composition, “Arco.” Parts of the compositon feature Thorin’s bowed bass weaving slow, melancholy melodies as Flinner and Martin provide churning, ostinato riffs atop the low end. It is as if the instruments’ traditional roles are reversed. The set ended on this note as the musicians took a break to “rehearse” some new tunes for the second set.
A concept the trio came up with in years past was the idea of Music du Jour, whereby the players would individually write a new tune each day and perform them each evening when they are on tour. The second set began with each member debuting their newly-penned tune from that day, all of which were performed as a group. The band had sheet music in front of them (or perhaps chord progressions or other relevant notes) and seemed genuinely full of anxiety to unveil these hours-old compositions in front of a live audience. Their obvious nervousness gave the performance a heightened sense of excitement, and it was fun to watch the players communicate through glances and gestures, clearly figuring out the nuances of the arrangements on the fly. My favorite of the newly unveiled tunes was titled “Through the Ringer.” Parts of the song had a relaxed, lullaby feel to them with Martin’s guitar and Thorin’s bass playing a repeated melody in unison while Flinner’s mandolin danced and darted freely atop. There was a serious playfulness to the composition like much of the trio’s work as a whole.
It is this very sense of adventure and fearlessness that makes the music of the Flinner Trio so compelling. What separates them from other grand experimenters, however, is a reverence for the music’s reception. One gets the sense that the players could probably have a great time getting really out with their work to the point of losing touch with the emotional connection needed from an audience. Their strength is that they push their music just to the edge of that line without ever crossing it. Never does one get the sense that the band is indulging itself to the point of sacrificing the integrity of the relationship between listener and performer. This is a difficult tightrope to walk, but the Trio manages to do so without so much as a stumble.
Dustin Ogdin is a freelance writer and journalist based in Nashville, TN. His work has been featured by MTV News, the Associated Press, and various other stops in the vast environs of the world wide web. His personal blog and home base is Ear•Tyme Music. Click below to read more and network with Dustin.