Sam Bush Wows the Crowd in Knoxville
Sam Bush is one happy guy. Indeed, there’s rarely a moment where you see him on stage and he’s not sporting a big grin and exuding the fact that there’s no place he’d rather be.
Thursday’s performance at Knoxville’s historic Bijou Theater was no exception. Bush and his five piece band — Bush on mandolin, guitar and fiddle; drummer Chris Brown; banjo player Scott Vestal; guitarist Stephen Mougin; and bassist Todd Parks — took the stage like old friends newly arrived for a homecoming, dispensing with formalities and offering casual asides before launching into a lively performance that lasted over two hours, not including the encore. Aside from songs culled from Bush’s latest album, Story Man, and other numbers that played a significant role in his ever-evolving trajectory, he paid tribute to various artists that he felt a special kinship for — Bill Monroe (an upbeat “Uncle Pen”), Townes Van Zandt (a rollicking reprise of New Grass Revival favorite “White Freightliner Blues”), Allen Toussaint (a funk-fueled “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley”), and in what was clearly the most poignant moment of the evening, the late Tom Petty. “You’ll have to help me with this because my voice isn’t quite as high as Tom’s,” Bush explained before launching into a stoic version of “I Won’t Back Down.”
Bush’s own material held special significance as well. “Circles Around Me,” the title track of one of his more recent albums, offered a paean to the sheer joys of performance, including his praises for Telluride, which hosts its much heralded bluegrass festival that Bush has been part of since the beginning. “Same Old River” expresses similar sentiments, a hymn of thanksgiving for a career this 65-year-old has obviously enjoyed all the way through. Still, it was the final song before the encore, “Stop the Violence,” with the title’s insistent refrain, that took on the greatest meaning, coming as it did only five days after the horrible atrocity in Las Vegas.
Despite the difficult week that preceded the performance, Bush and his band were undeterred in their determination to rouse the crowd with a set of songs that leaned on the so-called newgrass that Bush has sired throughout his career. Each member of the band was given a turn in the spotlight and an opportunity to offer a series of lightning fast solos that had the crowd cheering widely for every run. Bush himself stuck mainly to mandolin, but picked up his fiddle for a few songs, and, later, acoustic and electric guitars as the encore called for. Vocals, shared with Mougin for the most part, were, as always, spot on.
“My parents always encouraged of love of music so that we wouldn’t have to work as hard as they did,” Bush explained while talking about his farm family upbringing. “And fortunately, we never did.”
Nevertheless, one would be hard pressed to deny that Bush and company weren’t giving it their all on this particular evening. Best to consider it a workout to remember.