The set list was a well-rounded testament in their ability to mine the past and look forward to the unknown, spanning tens of decades through original material, cover songs both contemporary and classic, bluegrass standards and extended hoedown style jams.
Falling in the direct center of their Fall 2015 Tour, The Infamous Stringdusters are hitting every key stride, bringing a rambunctious stage presence that is only amplified by the sold-out crowds and bluegrass family reunion atmosphere.
A soft 9:30 start, The Infmaous Stringdusters kicked off the first of two sets with “You Can’t Stop The Changes” off of their 2010 release Things That Fly. They flew straight into the Flatt and Scruggs’ popularized bluegrass standard “Your Love Is Like A Flower”. A beautiful showcase of style and picking throughout, it is incredible just how percussive a band with no hard rhythm section to speak of can be.
The 2012 track from Silver Sky, “Night On The River”, segued into a verifiable fiddle-playing clinic from Jeremy Garrett in between sections of four and five part vocal harmonies on the Irish traditional “Thirsty” popularized in the American Bluegrass tradition by Peter Rowan.
Without missing a beat, they continued into a brief “Y2K” jam anchored by Chris Pandolfi on the banjo and into a furious reimagining of Pink Floyd’s “Fearless” off of 1971’s Meddle. Guitarist Andy Falco shone like a crazy diamond as he traded licks back and forth with the wide swing of Andy Hall’s dobro.
The Dusters continued to pull from the greats as they jumped into The Traveling Wilburys’ 1989 track “End Of The Line” and gave a nod to fellow Nashville songwriter Shawn Camp, who has penned number one singles for Garth Brooks and Brooks and Dunn, with the anthematic “Ain’t No Way Of Knowing”.
In the segue jam, a small but noticeable tease for The Grateful Dead’s “Black Throated Wind” from the 1976 album Steal Your Face preceded the set closing cover of a different Dead tune instead, “Jack Straw”.
The yearlong celebration of the Dead’s 50th anniversary has reached Bell’s several times this year, and most often in the key of bluegrass. Recognizing the high expectation for bluegrass in Kalamazoo, the Dusters absolutely delivered.
One of the best parts of watching The Infamous Stringdusters on stage is how mobile they are. Once the vocal harmonies are taken care of and a farm-style breakdown approaches, the eyes of each member flame up, and they will start to wander. A congregation would form around a different member every time, and that member becomes the center of the jam and sets the tone. One by one the jam rotates through each instrument and blossoming smiles until the song drops into the next or returns to a chorus.
After a 25-minute intermission, they opened the second set up huge with back to back covers of Bob Dylan’s folk classic “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)” and “American Girl” by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, ending with another rotating string of banjo, fiddle and dobro solos.
Reaching back to their 2008 self-titled release, The Infamous Stringdusters, the crowd was treated to an old original in “Get It While You Can”. The 1951 Merle Travis track “Nine Pound Hammer” opened things up for a high energy transition into “The Place That I Call Home” from Silver Sky.
After a blistering display of fretwork between the quintet, Garrett addressed the crowd. “Wow,” he said, taking a few deep breaths, “it really feels like we’re pickin’ in our living room.”
The middle segment of the second set was by far the highlight performance of the show. Beginning with a “Senor > Tragic Life” segment featuring some of upright bassist Travis Book’s best Western crooning of the evening and a series of huge Falco vs. Hall runs, the song appeared to peak right before grinding to a halt with “Tragic Life”.
One of the most ethereal tracks of the night, Falco employed a huge reverb sound to magnify Garrett’s percussive fiddle plucking. Contrary to the rest of the evening’s catalogue, “Tragic Life” strayed away from the late-night barn parties or festival day sets and placed the audience on their backs, in a cool nighttime desert scene. In true lonesome cowboy style, the blending of vocal harmonies and airy strings brought the starry sky above to life. Easily the highlight performance of the evening, it was also the longest and most cohesive jam clocking in at 17 minutes.
The mood lightened again as they moved on to “How Far I’d Fall For You”, “Home Of The Red Fox”, and “All The Same”. As each song progressed, it seemed that each member was vigorously trying to finish the song before the others, resulting in a blistering display of chops and focus across the band.
Book went on to re-introduce Pandolfi on the banjo and lead vocals for the first time in the evening. As a less frequent vocalist, even on multi-part harmonies, the audience was treated to a stellar rendition of Jimmy Webb’s country hit “Highway Man” off of 1977’s El Mirage.
Reaching back again to their 1998 self titled release, “Well Well” featured an eerie jam, harkening to a more spaced out and discordant take on the mood from “Tragic Life” earlier.
Garrett remarked before entering the title track from their 2014 release Let It Go, “If we ever wrote a sing-a-long though, this one is it.” And sing along the crowd did, until an a Cappella five-part vocal harmony ended the song to a completely still room.
The Infamous Stringdusters had one more cover left up their sleeves before they wrapped up the set: Vince Gill’s “Given More Time” off his 1996 release High Lonesome Sound, complete with a solid tease of John Williams’ equally infamous “Imperial March” from the Star Wars franchise.
Choosing the dobro over the mandolin allows The Infamous Stringdusters to maintain that otherwise traditional bluegrass sound over a wider tonality without losing out on crucial twang and stomp. But at a certain point, bluegrass becomes less about the technicality of the line up and all about the drive of the tempo.
After leaving the stage, the band returned along with opening band Horseshoes and Handgrenades for packed stage raucous sing along of The Band’s hit classic, “Up On Cripple Creek”. Recognizing the bluegrass haven of the north that is Kalamazoo, MI, bassist Travis Book paid homage to hometown heroes Greensky Bluegrass by donning a custom pair of sunglasses dedicated to the band.
Entering their final week of their Fall 2015 Tour, The Infamous Stringdusters and Horseshoes and Handgranades will be at Terminal West in Atlanta, GA tonight, November 12th before wrapping up in Chattanooga and Asheville the 13th and 14th. In February, they open winter 2016 with a two-night stand in Telluride before exploring the West Coast.