The Infamous Stringdusters: The Place That I Call Home
Sometimes life comes full circle, in the most weirdly wonderful and amazing ways, when you're not looking for it. Especially when you’re not looking for it. I should know this. It’s kind of one of my hallmark traits. Things tend to happen to me when I’m not paying attention.
This past weekend was the weekend I had been looking forward to all summer. I had heard about Ian Noe and his music earlier this year through my favorite piece of the internet – a Facebook group for fans of one of my favorite bands – and fell in love. Hard. It was an instant obsession. That’s also another of those hallmark traits I mentioned before. I tend to obsess.
Ian Noe was set to open for Jamestown Revival on a three night run through Texas. So we bought the tickets, booked the hotels, and made the plans. Well, the best laid plans don’t always work out, and even the most consummate professionals have issues that arise, and he couldn’t make the trip. (Sidenote: we wish him all the best and we’ll catch him when he comes back as a headliner, hopefully sooner rather than later.) Of course, we were bummed, but life happens to all of us, so we decided to just go and spend a weekend in Austin. Surely we could stumble upon something to do.
And stumble we did. Headlong into a weekend that will probably forever be one of my favorite live music experiences ever.
I've been a casual Stringdusters fan for a while. I’d never seen them live, though, through a combination of bad timing and what I see now as just plain stupidity on my part. I don’t really believe in coincidences though, so I'm grateful that I ended up where I did when I did.
Our previous plans now discarded, we hit Mohawk Austin for the Rhythm on the Water Summer Classic. The bill for the weekend included Ley Line, a multilingual folk and soul band from Austin; Fennario Flats, an Austin-based string band that ‘noodles through the songs of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead’; and the Billy Bright Quartet, featuring members of Wood & Wire; and each night would culminate with two sets from the Grammy-winning ‘Dusters.
Friday night's set included several songs from their new album, Rise Sun, along with older crowd favorites like “Gravity,” as well as standout covers of Pink Floyd's “Fearless,” Merle Haggard’s “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” and thoughtful teases of the Dead’s “Terrapin Station” from Andy Falco on guitar throughout both sets. The band brought Noah Jeffries (Milkdrive, Jason Boland and The Stragglers, The Deer) out for a fiddle fest with Jeremy Garrett on a rockin’ version of “Mr Charlie,” another nod to the Dead. Highlights of the night for me were “Planets,” “It’ll Be Alright,” and “Uncle Pen,” a Bill Monroe classic, which is easily one of my favorite songs, back to my Phish days.
Building off the incredible energy from the night before, somehow Saturday’s sets were even better. The ‘Dusters played originals like “The Place That I Call Home,” “Machines,” a fully-loaded instrumental jam, and “Truth and Love,” a hopeful anthem that reminds us of what Falco says is “truly important in life”—seeking the truth, finding your love, and staying positive in a culture that thrives on conflict. Some great covers were woven in: Bob Dylan’s “Señor,” “Possum” (Phish), “Walking on the Moon” (The Police), and Andy Thorn’s “All That I Can Take.” Wood & Wire’s Trevor Smith came aboard to duel it out with Chris Pandolfi on the banjo for a fantastic version of the traditional song, “Cluck Old Hen.” The weekend ended on a country note with The Stringdusters busting out Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” but jammed all to hell in the best way possible.
If you know me at all, you know I kind of meander musically in the Venn diagram that exists between jam bands, Texas/Red Dirt, alt country, and what most music folks would lovingly call Americana (if we’re using labels), among others. And I’m not the only one. Some of our favorite musicians wander that same space too. These genres overlap in so many ways, but one of the most notable for me, is the sense of community and family. Folks care about each other, they intrinsically appreciate the music on a different level, and they are amazingly loyal to the artists they love. It’s about a connection, and while that connection is hard to tangibly define, it can be felt.
What makes a memorable experience for the fans, what makes it the kind of experience that leaves you ready to do it all over again, is that connection; that shared energy.
On talking about that connection with the fans, Andy Hall (ISD dobro master) said,
"Originally, our goals were almost strictly musical, I think, being the best improvisational progressive bluegrass-based band we could be. As we've grown and matured, a higher goal has come to the forefront. And that is the idea of bringing joy (to people). The idea of being the hottest pickers or that sort of thing, it's still fun, but it's become less important than the idea of connecting with fans and bringing joy to their lives."
And as curators of that connection and joy, they love what they do. You can see it on their faces. Search #bassface, scroll their social media channels, or check out their vlog, and you'll see exactly what I mean. They radiate happiness. They have fun, they laugh, they tell stories. Mostly, though, they jam. And they have a ball doing it. More importantly, they’re experts at it. They dip into and out of rock, country, funk and what they call ‘old time’ music confidently, weaving bluegrass through it like a twangy tapestry; jamming from one into the other and back again, or on to something completely different, like it’s second nature. The way they back each other, all kind of huddled up, focusing and concentrating on whomever might be leading the way at the moment, is proof of their brotherhood and friendship. Each of them is brilliant individually, but together they’re greater than the sum of their parts. One plus one plus one plus one plus one doesn’t simply equal five.
In this case, through some kind of insane psychedelic math, Andy Falco (guitar), plus Chris Pandolfi (banjo), plus Andy Hall (dobro), plus Jeremy Garrett (fiddle), plus Travis Book (double bass), is equal to something exponentially greater than that as well. It's chemistry and it's electricity and magnetism and something you have to experience for yourself. Live. Think of it like process art, or an experiment in positivity and energy, where the audience is just as important to the outcome as the artist.
This girl couldn’t have asked for four more perfectly fitting sets. It was an amazing weekend of music; the kind that takes you on that face-melting, cathartic musical journey that you hope never ends, but you’re not quite sure you would survive if it didn’t. I’m always amazed by where my path leads me when I allow myself to take those journeys and wander a bit. Not surprisingly, when the music brings that connection, it always feels like home. Thanks for taking me home, Stringdusters. I’ll be back soon.
The Stringdusters have a thriving online community. Here’s some ways you can join in:
Online live streams and recordings:
Check their official website for info on their upcoming fall tour and their new album, Sun Rise.