Closing out February, Fort Collins’ premier venue Washington’s brought back yet another living legend to the front range of Northern Colorado. Innovators of bluegrass and beyond, Sam Bush and his incredible band, consisting of Steve Mougin on guitar, Wes Corbett on banjo, Todd Parks on bass, and Chris Brown on drums, performed an extensive set that left many impressed, ecstatic, and in the end, exhausted but still wanting more. This performance would also mark the group’s first return to the city in almost two years to the date and in the end, the wait was more than worth it.
The evening began with a notable talent in The Big Richard Band. An all-female quartet, this group gave their hearts over to the crowd with a performance that filled the room with silent smiles and raucous applause and even got Sam Bush referencing their set during his. An up-and-coming tour de force, these four local queens of the acoustic machine executed solid renditions of both traditional and modern covers, and with every number, they made the moment their own.
Following a short intermission, a packed house brought the five gentlemen of the newgrass jam to the stage with an ardent welcome of applause, “Bush” chants, and shrill whistling that made the start of the show feel and sound more like a weekend than a Tuesday. Reciprocating the energy, the group got started with a short but sweet Bush original in “Play by Your Own Rules” that sounded on point from the first note. “Transcendental Meditation Blues” filled the second slot and saturated the moment in reflection, beautiful harmonies, and a great melody that had everyone dancing and glowing. “Won’t You Let Me Be Your Man” brought the island vibe with its reggae cadence and three songs in, it was easy to hear that the band was on and were glad to be back in Fort Fun.
Singer / songwriter Jeff Black’s “They’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone” was up next and this staple of the Bush canon for years chugged along like a freight train and gave Wes Corbett a chance to take center stage with a great banjo solo as the ringmaster looked on with full attention. Corbett continued in the spotlight with his original “Boss Fight,” which, when asked the meaning of the title by Bush on stage, the author responded that “the music seemed liked the type of music that would be played when someone was fighting the boss in a video game,” leading to audible chuckles throughout the room. The instrumental tune is lightning quick, spotlighting Corbett’s exacting capabilities on the banjo.
Shifting the mood entirely, the crowd was treated to 25 minutes of electricity, feedback, and good times in the next four slots of the setlist. First off, heralding back to his New Grass Revival days opening and backing the great Leon Russell in the early 70’s, Bush rocked out a great version of “Stranger in a Strange Land” and laid the cherry on top with a great pairing of the New Grass original “One More Love Song.” This one-two punch was then followed by the TKO of a high energy “Bananas” that segued into its monstrous counterpart, The Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post,” which had everyone in the room, including the band, digging deep and getting off on the over-the-top crescendo.
Like a breath of fresh air, the softer “Circles Around Me” once again revealed the expertise of the players to shift from merciless aural exuberance to uplifting lightness without hesitation or error.
Switching instruments for the first time of the night, Bush tuned up the fiddle and paused to address the audience, sharing a note from a young fan that had been passed from the front row to the stage:
“Okay, we got this request, written by a young lady. Uh oh, we might have missed our queue. My mom is obsessed with your song “Howlin’ at the Moon.” The next one is my favorite line. I am 88% obsessed with it. Can you please play it before my bedtime of 8:30? Whoops, sorry, uh well to the little girl in the front row, we hope perhaps maybe you are still here since you may be 88% obsessed with this tune. We do appreciate that so much. 88%, that’s a B+ right? Sing along if you know it.”
Following a standard version of the fan request, Bush continued the adventure on the fiddle and grinded out a great rendition of John Hartford’s punchy “Vamp in The Middle.” Bush’s speed on the fiddle is hard to track visually but makes the ears revel in the blur of creativity. Parks’ tone was felt the entire evening, but his deep accents came through even more pronounced for this one.
At the close of the Hartford number, guitarist Steve “Mr. Mojo” Mougin explained the history of the next choice and his original, titled “Railroad Man.” “Co-written by Becky Puller, the tale of the tune is about a fiddle that my father-in-law owned that was made by a guy who worked on the railroad and built it out of an old wardrobe. You can still see the wormholes in it. It’s a fine sounding fiddle.” With that, the group got it started, Mougin taking on the vocals and leading the band. The solos of this one were played in rounds, cycling from Corbett’s banjo to Mougin’s acoustic to Bush’s fiddle and back again. Having the opportunity to take in this original, it is apparent that Mougin easily stands alone as an independent artist and is someone everyone should see when he is doing his solo thing.
Taking things up a notch once again, the high-speed Bush instrumental “Big Rabbit” came scurrying down the path and got everyone dancing and trying to keep up with the quintet. Turning Tuesday to a Sunday, Tim Krekel’s spiritual “Walking in a State of Grace” had at least one audience member yelling, “Preach it!” as the group delivered their 4-part harmonies and infused listeners with a little soul shine.
Reaching the end of the show and being the southerly gentleman he is, Sam took a pause to thank those who make their ability to play so easy, recognizing long-time road manager and FOH engineer Rick Wheeler as well as monitor man and senior executive stage manager Dan Scheibel.
Demonstrating that there was still plenty of fun left for the Fort, Bush strapped on his 1956 Fender electric mandolin while Mougin and Corbett donned telecasters and dedicated the next selection to ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill who passed away last year. Laying down a “wah”some dirty deed in the deceased author’s “Fool for Your Stockings,” the level at which this funky blues number was played once again showed that these players’ abilities know no bounds and their desire to perform the unexpected continues to keep audiences coming back for more. It also demonstrated Bush’s skills on the electric and his ability to work the pedal effects are as honed as what he brings to the stage in the acoustic setting. Raising the temperature even more and wanting to go out on a high note, the set closed with the metal edged original “Stop the Violence.”
Following a short-lived exit and with only minutes to spare until curfew, Bush and Company signed off the evening with Merle Travis’ “Nine Pound Hammer” and with its final notes, the unified patrons gave the group one more audible thanks for their opportunity to have shared life well spent.
Before closing out this review, it is here that the stamina, creativity, and tastefulness of drummer Chris Brown must be recognized. This man perpetuates the groove in mythical fashion and his ability to perform night after night so many different songs from a multitude of genres with such control and open ears just makes one tired thinking of it. He truly lets his appendages do the talking, as he rarely does anything from his silent throne but smile, nod, and enjoy the ride as much as the audience. Thank you, Chris, for keeping the rest of these guys in line. We know without you, it would all go off the rails.
Turning 70 this year, Sam looks more like a fit 50 and plays with a fire, energy, and excitement that continually reflects his inner child. His chops, stage presence, and wit are as sharp as ever. The last time this band blessed Fort Collins with its presence, Bush wore a shirt that read,” Like Kentucky Bourbon, I Get Better with Age” and that adage continued to hold true two years later. Although he has been referred to as the “King of Telluride” there is nary a more humble, down to earth player than Sam Bush.
As many know, Sam Bush is certainly a fan of wisdom, metaphor, and all things literal and the maxim “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is obviously one that he follows to the tee, especially in keeping this band together. The group is firing on all cylinders and sound even tighter than they did the last time they came to the Centennial State and although the group’s spring dates are wrapping up and they are about to start their seemingly unending festival sets of summer, one thing is for sure: Sam will be back and if you have the opportunity to catch him in the intimate settings he so often plays, don’t think about should, could, or woulds. Pull the trigger and treat yourself! You will walk away happier, healthier, and downright glad you did, even if you end up with a limp and a sore face from all the dancing and smiling.