by Rick Grant
Now that I’m happily ensconced in my semi-retirement, I rarely cover live music events. But, “just when I thought I was out, they dragged me back in.” Yes, I made the scene at the 2009 version of the Great Atlantic Music & Seafood Festival (GAMSF). The cold wind was whipping in off the ocean at 25 mph, cutting through my layers of clothing like a knife. Still, many people braved the cold to see the show.
Lately, I’ve been so discouraged by the awful sounding new crop of rockers and pop artists, I’ve stopped keeping up with them. Sure, there are exceptions like John Meyer who writes great songs. But for the most part, the bands I see on Jay Leno or on webcasts are mostly just cheap imitators-posers, recycling the past.
However, my justification for covering this festival (it was my call) was to witness Simplified and Blueground Undergrass live. A friend of mine tuned me on to Simplified, extolling their songwriting prowess and modern sound. I listened to their latest album and I was truly impressed. The songs have hooky modulations that made me want to hear them again. More significantly, Simplified’s songs are not rehashed copies of later-day songwriters. Their material is fresh and original, with a variety of rhythms and moods. Their music sets a positive mood.
Indeed, I didn’t need justification to witness Blueground Undergrass perform live. I’ve been a fan for some years now. This road seasoned group of master musicians play modern music with a bluegrass flavor. Like Simplified, BGUG writes fiercely original music that covers a wide spectrum of genres and styles. Yet, with pedal steel and electric banjo players in the mix, it’s firmly anchored in bluegrass.
When I arrived at 6:00 pm, Simplified was ready to launch its set. The group comes from Charlotte, North Carolina and has been slugging away for five years. Fronted by Clee Laster, the 6′ 7″ lead singer and guitarist, the group’s 2007 album, Smile won Best Rock Album of 2007 at the Charlotte Music Awards.
Chris Sheridan provides the colorful lead guitar stylings that are always in context with the subtleties of the songs. Chris is not a grandstander, but he gets into the music with inspired fervor. His lead work is in perfect sync with Clee’s masterful acoustic guitar playing. On bass, Chris Lynch holds down a funky bottom end which is in the groove pocket with Tim Lail’s creative drumming which is especially notable in a world of mediocre percussionists.
Listening to Simplified live, I actually got excited about music again. The group played songs from their 2007 album Smile and their latest 2008 album Elephant Sky. Man, the title cut opens with a clever guitar riff that grabs the listener by the neck and says, “Listen to this!” Then the break drops off the ledge and hits you in the diaphragm. This song will take your breath away with its twangy electric sound blended into Clee’s acoustic guitar and soft vocals.
There’s something wonderful about this group’s music that levitates the listener into a joyous state of mind. Hey, that’s the way music used to make me feel before the wretched crap-rap and dark-metal sent popular music into the dark ages of the 90s and early 2000s.
Likewise, the lads of Blueground Undergrass are a rocking band that lives to play on-stage to rabid fans Yes, they jam a lot, but they invent pertinent spontaneous ideas to sustain long stints of improvisation, thus avoiding boring interludes.
Frankly, I love the many sounds of the pedal steel and its way of cutting through the mix. Mark van Allen is a master of this versatile stringed instrument. He is an international avatar of the pedal steel having played with Sugarland, Vassar Clements, The Indigo Girls, Derek Trucks and many more. Mark uses the pedal steel to its most versatile advantage, playing with a great improvisational skill. He also uses a lap steel on some songs.
Jeff Mosier fronts the group on acoustic and electric banjo and vocals. Jeff’s creative ideas make-up the BGUG’s signature sound of taking bluegrass into new worlds of music without losing its roots. For Jeff, it’s a tricky creative balance not to lose the bluegrass feel.
Johnny Mosier masterfully plays electric and acoustic guitar using many orchestral sounds. His solos are imbued with a large vocabulary of guitar tones.
The rhythm section of Vic Stafford on drums and Kyle Spark on bass hold down BGUG’s eclectic rhythms with great skill and feel for the overall BGUG sound.
Kudos to Simplified and BGUG for re-igniting my interest in music again. These groups bring back the excitement of original music. That doesn’t mean I’m going to start covering every concert and festival out there. After all, I’m semi-retired-an old slacker. But, there is hope that artists who write memorable songs will once again rise to the forefront. I’ve heard enough crappy bands to last a lifetime.
The Great Atlantic Music & Seafood Festival 2009
by Rick Grant