When bluegrass legend Laurie Lewis stepped to the mic to address her hometown audience before launching into her annual Thanksgiving weekend show, her voice was lower than expected. Lewis and The Rights Hands — her crackerjack band of bluegrass masters including mandolinist/guitarist/vocalist Tom Rozum, Grammy-winning bassist Todd Phillips, banjo player Patrick Sauber and fiddle player Tatiana Hargreaves — had just come home from their first tour of Australia. “We had a great time,” Lewis informed her Berkeley fans. Unfortunately, they brought home a souvenir in the form of a nasty bug that all but took away the celebrated bandleader's voice.
In the world of bluegrass, Lewis is equal parts legend and ambassador, and her class act wasn’t going to be dimmed too much by a compromised voice. Her ability to curate a showcase set of bluegrass gems, nimble playing and pure joy in making music, only came to the fore that much more. Lewis is both a master and preserver of the bluegrass form, and her latest project, The Hazel & Alice Sessions (soon to be released), pays loving tribute to the songs of her musical forbears and fellow trailblazers, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. Lewis shared stages with both women during their careers (and produced Gerrard’s 2013 effort Bittersweet) and Hazel & Alice demonstrates once again Lewis’s reverence and commitment to the bluegrass tradition in which she’s a large part. Also much in evidence during the show was her generous spirit and enthusiasm for the promise of the next generation of bluegrass musicians. When she couldn’t reach a note on a three-part harmony, she nodded to her protégé Hargreaves — Lewis first met the twenty-something-year-old player when she was 7 years old, and now calls her “Hoss” in deference to her heavyweight musicianship — who seamlessly stepped in to take the part. Lewis called up another of her mentees, Rachel Tietjen of The T Sisters, to sing with her on the Dickens’ song “Pretty Bird” (Linda Ronstadt does the part on the recorded version featured on the upcoming Hazel & Alice, a track Lewis and Ronstadt originally recorded for a since-shelved Rounder album of Dickens tunes). She also gave ample centerstage time to her longtime bandmates, graciously ceding the lead to Rozum on his waltz “The Snowy Road,” and the Bobby Nolan classic “Cool Water,” which, again, beautifully showcased the Right Hands’ stellar interplay. Even if she’s under the weather, Lewis and her band are, simply put, superlative.