Approaching the middle of a 34-date winter tour in support of the release of their sixth full-length studio album, Ladies & Gentleman, The Infamous Stringdusters are having a ball.
On Saturday, February 20, they brought their high spirited Ladies & Gentleman Tour to The Fillmore in San Francisco. A true reflection of the record released two weeks prior, they are touring with support from Nashville, TN based all-female bluegrass group Della Mae and special guest vocalist Nicki Bluhm.
The concept behind L&G is the bands’ most creative project to date, according to their Pledge Music page, a fan-funded platform for independent artists.
“Something unifying carries across the different tracks despite the diversity. All of the ladies really brought something special, often melodically, to each song,” says guitarist Andy Falco. “They took liberties with what we gave them, which is wonderful. They adapted the material and made it their own, so the finished track was truly a merger of the Stringdusters and each unique collaborator.”
Della Mae, a five-piece out of Nashville with roots spanning from Massachusetts to Oregon, drew a relatively large crowd in large thanks to the natural familial sense of community that comes from a good bluegrass gathering.
Consisting of Celia Woodsmith on guitar, two-time Grandmaster Fiddle Champion Kimber Ludiker, Jenni Lyn Gardner on mandolin, Courtney Hartman bouncing between guitar and banjo, and new addition Zoe Guigueno on the upright bass, each member takes turns leading the vocal duties and providing rich, sustaining backing harmonies.
As a full female group, Della Mae is a diamond in the rough and rowdy boy’s club of bluegrass bands, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from the fast picking melodies and bourbon slinging lyrics. They nail the driving, rhythmic thump of bluegrass despite the absence of a percussion section, and never lose steam along the way.
Playing a vibrant 10 song, 45 minute set that spanned each of their studio releases, Della Mae showed the Bay Area bluegrass crowd that they are a force to be reckoned with. Switching between instruments, lead vocals and song writing credentials, the focused determination of the quintet was bursting off the stage.
Della Mae set the pace for high energy positivity onstage. Between bourbon-fueled originals and unique interpretations of Bonnie Raitt and The Rolling Stones covers, each member provided an undeniably light hearted vibe throughout.
Less than 30 minutes after Della Mae finished their set, The Infamous Stringdusters strolled onstage to a full house and dove into an ode to one of their favorite bands to come out of the Bay Area, but not before taking the time to appreciate their rookie appearance at the famed Fillmore.
“There are just some things that you look forward to being able to do as a musician,” said double bassist Travis Book. “This, playing The Fillmore, is one of them.”
With a rowdy rendition of “Big River”, the first of three Dead standards played throughout the night, Andy Hall set the standard high with a true-to-feel dobro solo.
For the next three songs, Hall, along with Falco, Book, Chris Pandolfi on banjo, and Jeremy Garrett on the fiddle tore through a ramped up version of an older rarity “Ring On Finger” and into a tight three-song segment.
Featuring a “Mountain Town” sandwiched between two tracks from 2014’s Let It Go, “Peace Of Mind” and “Summercamp”, these dusters couldn’t contain the shared excitement of the stage they were on.
Although they all share vocal harmony roles, it is not often there is more than one lead on a song. When one member is anchored at the microphone, The Infamous Stringdusters have a habit of leaving their own microphones to explore the stage, challenge each other with fills, and cheer each other on.
Prior to the 2015 release of Undercover, the ‘Dusters 2012 effort Silver Sky housed a bluegrass take of “Walking On The Moon” by The Police. Placing it in the middle of the set, the band literally used the metaphorical springboard of low gravity to boost the theme of the evening spaceward with a slowed down, dubbed down take on the tune.
A new original instrumental tune called “Sirens” was introduced before special guest Nicki Bluhm was welcomed on stage for the first night of her two week run with the ‘Dusters.
Singing on two originals, “Listen” from the new release Ladies & Gentleman and “Light & Love” off of Let It Go as well as with a rare Pandolfi vox appearance on the traditional standard, “Cash On The Barrelhead”, Bluhm’s rich vocals carried the onstage energy to new heights.
Once again between verses the band members would gravitate around the stage, Bluhm with a tambourine, all smiling and encouraging a faster lick from whoever’s turn to solo it was.
A 10-minute rendition of fan-favorite “Y2K” left the crowd in anxious anticipation as the 11th song of the set was also the last. But if anyone in the crowd felt cheated, the ‘Dusters had an hour and a half 15 song second set coming up.
Beginning with a furious three-song expo in banjo picking and walking the bass, Pandolfi and Books traded licks across “Night on The River”, “Where The Rivers Run Cold” and the wooded barnyard stomp of “Home Of The Red Fox”.
Bluhm returned to the stage to sing the L&G track she’s featured on, “Still The One” as well as two more of the new tunes. Standing out especially were the fiery fiddling of “Won’t Be Long” and the soothing bass lines of “Run To Heaven”.
Following the second three-song guest spot of Bluhm, an incredibly tight and focused standard rendition of the relatively new original “Places I’ve Been”, the boys onstage decided the time was appropriate to properly dust the eager crowd.
“Black Rock” from their 2008 self-titled album featured a wide crescendo from the fiddle as the song evolved into a middle eastern improvisation masterpiece
With soft, jazzy whooshes of wet bass and deep scooping of the dobro, the band entered into “Space”, the second Grateful Dead cover of the night. An orchestrated menace of music, they melded classical melodies over deep bass notes that built up and into a climax transition into “Highwayman”, by country super-group The Highwaymen.
“Echoes of Goodbye” followed by “Tragic Life” from their 2007 debut Fork In The Road supplied the crowd nostalgic for the older tunes before they returned to the wet and splashy sounds of The Grateful Dead in “Scarlet Begonias”.
A broken guitar string forced Falco to slowhand his way through an improvised bridge into the next song, “Life Without A Care” before Bluhm returned to the stage to take lead vocals on The Infamous Stringdusters’ take on her own song, “Little Too Late” to close the second set in a funky bluegrass hoedown appropriate for a show closer.
For the encore, with all of Della Mae on stage, Books attempted to poll the ten musicians on which song to play before deciding on a spiritual gospel number, “I’m Working On A Building”.
“It's a jam session now!” Exclaimed Books.
At the end of the extended jam, he continued: “We ain't done yet! Nobody leave the stage! Get Nikki back out here. Ok, let's make a mess of things,” and they ended their first appearance at The Fillmore with a barn-burning bluegrass rendition of the Grateful Dead’s take on the Buddy Holly tune “Not Fade Away”.
Featuring full-on involvement between the band and the audience, Hall led a harmonica clap along with solo before inspiring a rowdy duel between the guitars and banjos onstage. At the end of it all, an 11 person bluegrass band was just getting started, and there are sure to be many memorable moments from this particular group of musicians.
Catch The Infamous Stringdusters as they tour through March with Della Mae and Nicki Bluhm, reaching deep into the Midwest and up the East Coast.