Suffice it to say, the Steep Canyon Rangers consistently defy expectations. Where once it might have been all too easy to classify them as simply another bluegrass band making a pitch to appeal to the mainstream, these days their combination of astute songwriting and deft instrumental interplay make categorization within any single genre all but impossible and sweep them instead into realms where folk, country, rock, and even jazz find a clear compatibility.
That was proven on Friday night, Feb. 2, at the historic Bijou Theater in Downtown Knoxville as the Steep Canyon Rangers boldly advanced into yet another new phase of their collective career, one which introduced new bass player and old college buddy Barrett Smith and put the emphasis on their remarkable new album, the Joe Henry-produced Out in the Open, their most accomplished and cohesive collection of songs to date. With equal emphasis on showmanship, adroit musicianship, and a superb selection of songs, it was a performance that once again proved definitively that the band is among the best road-tested ensembles currently plying their talents in live performance.
The concert began in somewhat austere circumstances, with mandolin player Michael Guggino taking the stage alone in near darkness and plucking out a gentle, beguiling melody that put the restive audience in a decidedly mellow mood. As the rest of the band — Smith, guitarist Woody Platt, banjo player Graham Sharp, percussionist Michael Ashworth, and fiddler Nicky Sanders — quietly took their places, things began to stir and the proceedings quickly accelerated into a full onslaught of dazzling dexterity. Each of the band members are virtuosos in their own right, but their expressive interplay and overall cohesive connection were nothing short of dazzling throughout. When, at one point, the band members congregated around Ashworth’s now fully fleshed-out drum kit and offered up a dazzling rhythmic interlude (“a bluegrass drum circle,” as Platt referred to it), it was a show-stopping moment, one of several during the two-hour outlay.
Ashworth himself showed he wasn’t content to merely stay behind the traps. He later joined Platt center stage to for a quiet acoustic stretch that included a moving rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” a rare but appropriate cover that’s included on the new album. In situations such as this, the band’s precise vocal harmonies prove as adept and impressive as their instrumental skills, one of the many attributes that the group can claim with such obvious ease.
Indeed, while each of the band members is a stunning soloist in his own right, Platt and Sharp — the latter credited as the writer of the majority of the songs on the new album — stand out as fine frontmen, Platt with a pleasing vocal well suited to a majority of the songs, and Sharp courtesy of a rich baritone that adds resonance and resilience to the others. Still, if there’s one musician in the bunch that consistently inspires the crowd’s enthusiasm, the distinction would have to go to Sanders. An unstoppable pool of energy, he consistently hops about the stage, dancing in the manner of a happy elf, drawing all kinds of effects from his fiddle, but also serenading with rapturous soaring strings, depending on whatever mood is called for.
It’s that overall exuberance aand enthusiasm that have become the hallmarks of any Steep Canyon Rangers concert, and the full house that witnessed their performance affirmed that fact throughout. And while the new songs were received enthusiastically, the more familiar fare — Steep Canyon classics “Stand and Deliver,” “Tell the Ones I Love,” and “Simple Is Me” in particular — elicited the greatest reaction, along with the most eager anticipation. Given their amiable presence and pleasing personalities, it’s hard to imagine any band more capable of rallying a crowd than this one. For the Steep Canyon Rangers, that’s a slope easily ascended.