The month of March marks the end of winter and the onset of spring. Last March Tuesday followed suit, with the conclusion of the winter tour of the legendary Colonel of Bluegrass Sam Bush. Finishing up 12 shows in a 14-day jaunt through the Midwest and the Rocky Mountains, a feat that would exhaust many the intrepid traveler, the band showed no signs of running on empty as they hit the stage to an almost sold-out crowd on their final night in the historic Fort Collins venue Aggie Theatre.
The crowd welcomed Mr. Bush and his confidants at a quarter past nine, and without a word and only a smile, the band got things got going with a nice ambient tuning jam before jumping both feet into “Play by Your Own Rules”. This high energy tune showcased early on the prowess of newcomer banjoist Wes Corbett, who easily demonstrated that he was an appropriate pick to keep this band rolling in the wake of Scott Vestal’s departure. Continuing to pull from his high energy catalog, Bush pulled up “I’m Still Here” from his 2010 Dream The Dream album and kept the house getting down.
Finally breaking his silence, Sam bid the crowd good evening and stated how nice it was to be back at The Aggie. Keeping it brief, he put out the invitation to everyone to take a ride on “The Bluegrass Train” as he quickly counted off the tune of the same name, continuing the Tuesday night hoedown.
Having stretched out during the cardio workout of the first three tunes, the band turned and delivered a commanding performance on the instrumental New Grass Revival piece “Sapporo”. Penned by Bush for the group, the number was described as the product of a simple 5 note progression that Sam learned while in Japan in 1976. That stated, what the group delivered was anything but simple, as the intricate lines and tempo shifts revealed how well these artists listen and communicate with each other. This was demonstrated via the group as a whole, a moving juggernaut of sound, as well as individualistically, as each member was given the opportunity to solo extensively and without hurry. Without notice nor a breath, “Sapporo” segued seamlessly in the John Hartford high octane swinger “Up on the Hill Where They Do The Boogie” and the crowd kept on dancing!
The Colonel took time to introduce the band, stating their city of origin, followed by the state of Tennessee, hoping for a laugh but leading instead to mixed reactions from the crowd, including both celebratory cheers and satirical boos.
Guitarist Steve Mougin was given the opportunity to shine next, pulling out his soon-to-be-released single, “I’m Gonna Ride”. This comforting bluegrass tune allowed Mougin to take lead vocals while Bush and Corbett added harmonies, followed by short, sweet solos by the three.
No bluegrass show would be complete without a contribution by one of the old Masters, and on this evening Doc Watson’s legend came to call. Prefacing the tune, Bush told the crowd that the next tune, although made famous by Watson but older than the great, was more in the style of Leon Russell and became as such after Russell had one night asked Bush, who was in his touring band at the time, to show him a bluegrass number, to which Bush laid out “Columbus Stockade Blues”. Russell liked it so much that he changed the key, put his spin on it, and added to his rotation. By the end of the first stanza, any appreciator of Leon Russell could easily hear the influence in the structure and punches.
Keeping the energy and the music rolling, the band segued to The Box Tops’ “The Letter”, which carried more of the Joe Cocker grit and afforded the crowd the opportunity to sing along, which they happily did. The ending had the gents singing in the falsetto, while Bush comically stated “his baby wrote him a letter, on paper……, no email, no tweets, no Instagram, no telegram”, getting a good laugh out of the crowd and the band.
Taking it back to Appalachia, the traditional short and sweet bluegrass piece “Hard Hearted” was up next and was filled to the brim with quick banjo and drum roles galore.
“Circles Around Me”, a song of thanks as described by Bush, showcased the emotional, deeper side of this inspiring player. A slower number that induces feelings of freedom and love with friends genuine and represents that the man’s context goes much deeper than just the light speed jam grass shred fest that draws so many to his attendance.
Introduced as a bluegrass waltz number, the band grinned as they jumped into Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire”, a tune that the man has been playing for years and still gets crowds going and laughing at the schtick.
Turning the spotlight to banjoist Wes Corbett, Bush asked what song Corbett wanted to play. Corbett responded, stating,” I want to play a song that commemorated my own 30th birthday party. It is called Dinosaur Birthday”. With the banjo as the centerpiece, this was the first time of the evening that Bush picked up the fiddle, resulting in fiery exchanges between hammer claw and bow as the band held the framework in place.
Reinforcing the positive message that Sam Bush represents so well in music and speech, “Howlin’ At the Moon” continued to send out the good time vibes.
Like bluegrass from the far east, the instrumental “Mahavishnu Mountain Boys” clocked in at ten minutes and resulted in many taking flight under closed eyelid as the room swirled and shifted in both time and space, again showing that the stage players are as comfortable in the structure as they are in the improvisation.
As if anyone would attempt to categorize Sam Bush into any one genre, the next tune certainly showed that this man’s creative endeavor is neither stifled nor easily contained. “Stop the Violence” is one of his newer originals, released in 2019, and rings out more like rock anthem than the genres he is usually associated with. In fact, for the performance, both Corbett and Mougin hung up the acoustic tone for electric pickups, distortion, and feedback, and did so without skipping a beat, turning The Aggie from barn to barn burner.
Keeping with the fire started in “Stop the Violence”, the band maintained their harder edge and continued on with another rocker in “Wake Up”. These two proclamations lyrically challenge listeners to take an active role in their contribution in life and forego the status quo to make choices for them.
To close out the evening, Bob Marley’s “One Love” was the final message for the good people of Fort Collins, Colorado. Done in its “traditional bluegrass Rasta reggae way”, the tune gave one last opportunity for fans to sing along with one of their musical heroes and be reminded that music is again one of the elemental things that bind us together.
Based on his energy and his physicality, it is hard to believe that Bush is almost 70 years old. His demeanor represents both the maturity of bandleader while still entertaining the high energy kid inside whose only focus is the musical moment. As to be expected, the players that Sam Bush surrounds himself with are the cream of the crop. This group of men smile as much among themselves as for the people they are playing for, truly demonstrating how much fun and connection they have with each other. As it has been stated, “it is hard to keep a good man down”, this value certainly rings true for Sam Bush and His Merry Men, as they are slated to start their spring tour in a matter of weeks. For those who have yet to see Sam Bush perform: Treat yourself already, you won’t be disappointed and you will get more than an earful!