Sings Like Hell, picks likewise : 22nd annual series wraps with solid newgrass set

Mar 26, 2008 | Reviews, Series 22


Generally speaking, the monthly Sings Like Hell concert series, which wrapped up its 22nd semi-annual season Saturday at Lobero Theatre, tilts in a southerly direction, idiomatically.

Country, folk and bluegrass flavors have figured heavily into the mix, partly thanks to the discerning ear of Austin, Texas-based, series honchette Peggie Jones and the tastes of the core subscriber-based audience. It’s also partly because the countryfied Americana scene represents some of the strongest work around, in modern-day song business.

For Saturday’s edition, the unstated theme was bluegrass, revisited, with the appearance of a remarkable, young Nashville-based band called the Infamous Stringdusters, along with singer-songwriter Jake Armerding, whose bluegrass roots run deep.

There was a whole lotta pickin,’ jokin’ and singin’ going on. And the verdict: new twists on bluegrass, in its various relationships to the real McCoy, are making this an especially fertile period for the genre and its sub-genre kinfolk.

Unofficially, there is something in the air, even just by virtue of what we’ve seen pass through Santa Barbara as of late. Saturday’s rousing and twanging double-header came on the heels of another powerful newgrass show in Santa Barbara — the SOhO appearance by the Punch Brothers, a wunderkind new band led by wizard mandolinist Chris Thiele (who has appeared in Sings Like Hell with his former band, Nickel Creek).

Nashville, and the Nashville state of mind, remains at the core of this music. The six members of the Stringdusters — with nary a weak link in the bunch — live in Nashville, although they gravitated there from other parts of the country. While each player dazzled, individually and in ensemble, special notice goes to the highly musical dobro player Andy Hall and mandolinist Jesse Cobb.

Some highlights from the set included a true-blue bluegrass tune, the classic “Uncle Pen,” and more contemporary vocal songs, such as the lovely “Wildfire.” The Stringdusters also broke loose occasionally into extended collective jamming workouts.

On the whole, the band, making its Santa Barbara debut this night, made instant believers out of many in the house. This band is a true newgrass marvel. It’s all good in this band, between the picking and the singing (including some pristine three-part harmonies) and with esprit de corps by the bushel.

Opener/co-headliner Jake Armerding performed at the Lobero several years ago, just as his star was beginning to rise. Back then, the Nashville-based Compass label was his home and he was being groomed for the Americana scene.

But this time around, Mr. Armerding arrived on the heels of his newly independent, post-Compass life, with the release of “Walk on the World.” Made in five years and in various cities, the album’s diversity — presented in his live set — made for a fuller picture of his distinctive stylistic blending. He has concocted an intriguing musical stew out of bluegrass, pop, folk and a swipe of blues, nicely blended in a personal and unpretentious way.

Inspired by his musical father, Terry Armerding — a solid mandolinist and limber tenor singer who joined his son at the Lobero — the Boston-born and -raised musician started on fiddle before switching to guitar and the song-making craft. When the younger Mr. Armerding busted out hot bluegrass licks on fiddle, midway through the set, as his father sang “Sweet Georgia Brown,” we got a picture of the lineage onstage.

Just to throw a curve ball into the Americana-colored proceedings, Jake Armerding brought out an unexpected encore: his own back porch-ready cover of George Michaels’ “Faith.” Somehow, that pop tart hit — dressed in twangy casual wear — got along just fine in a set that also included Mr. Armerding’s Don McLean-like tribute to the late bluegrass icon Bill Monroe, with “Hole in the Sky (the Mandolin Man).” It’s all in the presentation and the open-minded attitude one brings to the gig.