Bluegrass Sessions

Béla Fleck - Jerry Douglas - Sam Bush

Skyline Stage - Chicago

September 15, 1999

First Appeared in The Music Box, October 1999, Volume 6, #10

Written by John Metzger


On the chilly night of September 15, the Old Town School of Folk Music closed out the summer with the Bluegrass Sessions at Chicago’s Skyline Stage. The performance featured banjoist Béla Fleck, mandolinist Sam Bush, and legendary dobro player Jerry Douglas who combined their talents for what can only be described as an all-out jam session. While this concert might not have had the star power of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, R.E.M., or Tom Petty, in the bluegrass world, this was the blockbuster event of the summer.

When the tour was announced, guitarist Tony Rice was on the bill, but a subsequent hand injury unfortunately forced him to stay home for this portion of the journey. Filling in for Rice — and doing so quite admirably — was Bryan Sutton, while fiddle player Stuart Duncan and bassist Mark Schatz completed the sextet.

As anticipated, the collective scattered numerous instrumentals over the course of its two sets, which not only showcased the musicians' incredible skills, but also highlighted their deft ability to improvise. Each of them has spent his career pushing the boundaries of bluegrass further than anyone, and they are often referred to as "progressive" players. Fleck and Bush alone have influenced countless artists, with the most notable of these being Leftover Salmon. At many times, the ensemble seemed designed to try to tap into this element of the groove-rock genre and draw some of that audience back into the bluegrass scene. It only makes sense. After all, there are countless improvisational rock groups touring the country that include bluegrass songs in their repertoire. Of course, that’s also how it all started — bluegrass was the key element in the development of the Grateful Dead’s sound.

Throughout the concert, the musicians reached deep into themselves to cultivate a groove. One by one each instrumentalist took his turn at playing a lead before sliding back into a slipstream of rhythm. Each song became a musical dialogue, transcending the boundaries of space and time to create a fluid, dynamic interstate of musical ecstasy.

Several of these instrumentals came from the collective’s new release Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Volume 2. Valley of the Rogue magically captured the essence of driving down the side of a mountain on a winding parkway. On The Over Grown Waltz, the ensemble set a melancholy mood as Fleck added a piano-like accompaniment over a gentle strum of acoustic guitar.

For those songs when vocals were necessary, Bush handled them perfectly, turning in a stunning medley of Little Feat’s Sailin’ Shoes and Robert Johnson’s Crossroads. He passionately sang Same Ol’ River — a song he wrote about escaping from the daily grind and searching for new experiences — which also benefited from the extended treatment it received from the ensemble. In addition, Fleck pitched in to sing a pair of duets with Bush, and when Douglas and Duncan added their voices to the mix, the group created lush, four-part harmonies.

There was a sense of playfulness that pervaded the performance, spurred on by Bush’s sense of humor, high-level of energy, and somewhat rambunctious attitude. This was also no doubt due to the fact that this was the group’s last night on the road until October. Make no mistake — this is a show that you don’t want to miss. It was certainly the best concert to hit Chicago so far this year.

Tales from the Acoustic Planet Volume 2 is available
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Copyright © 1999 The Music Box