Thursday, June 11, 1998
Let''s start with bluegrass, there''s a lot of it around here this week. The state-of-the-art Media Room plays host to a pair of bluegrass-ish concerts this week: On Friday, Druh Tr va, a quintet of musicians from Czechoslovakia deliver their blend of bluegrass, new-grass and jazz, and on Tuesday, The Freight Hoppers offer up an "old timey" style of music that sounds a lot like bluegrass (but isn''t, the experts assure us).
According to Robert Krestan, lead vocalist and principal songwriter for Druh Tr va, there are about 100 bluegrass bands in Czechoslovakia--more than anywhere else in Europe. In an interview with Ray Hicks, in Bluegrass Now, Krestan put the popularity of Czech bluegrass into a historical context, beginning in the 1930s with something called the "tramp" movement. Krestan describes the participants as "normal" people during the week.
"They have their jobs, homes, families, things like that," Krestan told Hicks. "But on Saturdays and Sundays, they become cowboys and gunfighters and trappers. They live in nature. They have shacks in the woods. And they have their own special kind of music."
In the early years, according to Krestan, that "special kind of music" was a blend of American country and swing music. Then, in 1982, Pete Seeger visited Czechoslovakia and introduced the public at large to the five-string banjo--and the pleasures of bluegrass. Krestan and a few others, however, had been into bluegrass long before that and were only waiting for the rest of the country to catch up. Krestan says he fell in love with the music in 1968, as a 10-year-old, when he first heard a recording by Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass.
"I didn''t listen to anything but bluegrass music," says Krestan. "I was a bluegrass nut for 17 years. It wasn''t until after that when I began listening to other kinds of music. I didn''t know Czech folk music, I didn''t know rock ''n'' roll, only bluegrass."
Druh Tr va ("Second Grass") was formed in 1991 and since then has gone straight to the top of Czech charts, winning top honors as the Czech "Band of the Year" (in an Eastern European version of the Grammys). They''ve released five CDs, they tour Europe on a regular basis and have made seven tours of the US since 1993.
While the band remains firmly rooted in traditional bluegrass, a compilation tape forwarded to me reveals a range of musical styles that covers everything from Chick Corea''s "Spain" and Bob Dylan''s "One More Cup of Coffee," to traditional American folk tunes like "Muleskinner Blues" and "Orange Blossom Special," to original tunes by Krestan. And demonstrating the band''s willingness to step out of narrow traditional grooves, the instrumentation includes electrificated instruments and ...purists gasp here...a full drum kit.
Druh Tr va, Friday, 8pm. The Media Room, Pacific Grove. $15/advance, $20/door. 373-7379.
While The Freight Hoppers don''t have quite as exotic a background, they, too, come to town with a well-established reputation. The quartet from North Carolina (David Bass, fiddle; Frank Lee, banjo/vocals; Cary Fridley, guitar/vocals; Jim O''Keefe, bass) was formed in 1993 and has taken top honors at various bluegrass and folk festivals around the country, toured the US and managed to get themselves booked on "A Prairie Home Companion."
While the fiddle ''n'' banjo sound might deceive novice listeners, expert ears will be able to discern that this isn''t bluegrass music, it''s a music that pre-dates that music. While bluegrass is primarily a concert type of music, the "old timey" sound favored by The Freight Hoppers is, first and foremost, a dance music. (Are you square- and contra-dancers out there listening?)
Much of the music the band plays has been taken from recordings from the ''20s and ''30s by bands like the Skillet Lickers, Uncle Dave Macon and the Carter Family, or has been passed down to the band from Appalachian fiddlers who never lost the old songs.
The Freight Hoppers'' appearance at The Media Room marks the first concert produced outside her house by Pagrovian Nina Kelly.
The Freight Hoppers, Tuesday, 7:30pm. The Media Room. $15/before 6/12; $17/after 6/12. 372-5641.
And, while we''re still in this bluegrass mode, we might as well mention that Peter Rowan is performing at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center on Saturday. Rowan, a dazzler on the guitar, was part of Bill Monroe''s band for a couple years back in the mid-''60s, before forging a career as one of our more eclectic musicians, twisting bluegrass to fit contemporary styles and attitudes. He''s recorded with everyone from David Grisman to Jerry Garcia (and with them both on Old and in the Way, one of the best-selling bluegrass albums of all time) and Flaco Jimenez. And he wrote two songs that became anthems for redneck dope smokers of the ''70s: "Panama Red" and "Free Mexican Airforce."
Peter Rowan, Saturday, 7 & 9pm. Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa Cruz. $15.75. 429-7663.
(And if that isn''t enough bluegrass for you, The Fabulous Bluegrass Monarchs have nailed down a semi-regular gig on Fridays at Ye Admiral Benbow Tavern. What''s a bluegrass band doing in a British-style pub? I dunno. I''ll find out. In the meantime, I''m still boggling over the Czech connection.)
Pop songstress Jill Cohn makes her MoCo debut at Viva Monterey on Tuesday. Her second CD, Stories from the Blue Bus, reveals a voice that''s reminiscent of a young Joni Mitchell.
Most of the songs on the album chronicle the breakup of the 33-year-old musician''s long-term relationship.
Jill Cohn, Tuesday, 8pm. Viva Monterey. 646-1415.