Bluegrass singer/songwriter Peter Rowan makes his way around the whole United States performing intimate gigs and festival headliners on a regular basis. Rowan is generally touring with multiple different projects at once and in the studio. He’s released four original albums since 2010 including with his bluegrass band, his Twang an’ Groove project and solo. The bluegrass icon began his career in 1965 when he was hired by founding father of bluegrass Bill Monroe into his Bluegrass Boys band. Many regard Rowan most fondly with his stellar collaborations in 1973 with Jerry Garcia, Vassar Clements, David Grisman and John Kahn. Old & In The Way performed for ten months only but left a gigantic footprint in American roots music. Rowan’s signature yodels took what Jimmie Rodgers was doing in cowboy country music and applied it sophisticatedly to folk as a whole. His imaginative story telling is the stuff of legend. His many additions to the bluegrass song canon are quintessential.
Rowan throws an annual holiday show at Berkeley’s original coffeehouse/gathering space Freight & Salvage. A venue that was birthed during the flourishing time of freaks and free love in the bay area stands today as an important venue for the finest acoustic roots artists to perform in their habitat. This year’s party last Friday was a particularly special occasion. Alongside Rowan was the legendary Ramblin’ Jack Elliot co-hosting the evening of country, bluegrass, folk, and roots music. Rowan amicably gave Elliot his solo stage time, casually dipping back in at the right moments. Ramblin’ Jack’s trademark sense of humor and “rambles” was the perfect fit for the event. Other performers included the talented Nina Gerber on guitar, old friend Blaine Sprouse on fiddle, Mike Witcher on bass, and a less-likely sit in from Peter’s neighbor in Marin County, Ukulele slinger and vocalist Jeff Keana’aina. Jeff revealed that he was humbled being surrounded by such established musicians, but as the audience would discover, he was no amateur. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was Jeff’s Hawaiian traditional tunes that revealed a vocal style similar to the yodel. How strangely the puzzle pieces fit together.
The first set was dedicated to folk and country standards, mixed in with Jack’s signature rambles. Elliot and Sprouse shared the stage for a number of tunes including “How Long Blues.” Musicians came and left to honor each other’s featured moments. The relaxed format made it seem more like a classy acoustic jam session than a headliner performance. The second set was reserved primarily for beloved Rowan originals. “Panama Red”, an extended psychedelic “Land of the Navajo” and a particularly brilliant take on “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy” highlighted the second set. The entire band sans Elliot came out to accompany Rowan on “Midnight Moonlight” before calling it a night. A diverse evening of music was heightened by a varied group of musicians all whom believe in freeing music from genre limitations. Grateful Web respected Freight & Salvages no photo policy. For this intimate of a show it seemed most appropriate to sit back and take in the hundreds of years of combined musical experience and talent onstage.