Steep Canyon Rangers and NC Symphony Under the Stars
Steep Canyon Rangers on June 30, 2017
It’d be easy to assume that a symphony backing a bluegrass band represents a clash of civilizations, two great tastes that maybe don’t taste all that great together.
But a concert under the stars (and a little bit of drizzle) from the North Carolina Symphony and home-state band the Steep Canyon Rangers in Cary, NC, Friday night proved it can be a delicious combination.
With sensitive arrangements written by Jonathan Sacks, whom the Steeps met when he scored music for orchestras backing them and Steve Martin, the symphony added power to the pulsating rhythms driving SCR songs like “Radio” and “Tell the Ones I Love.” And lovely, slower songs were rendered even lovelier with lush strings moving underneath, adding extra dimension to vocal harmonies and texture behind the band members’ instrumental solos.
The most thrilling moment came right after the intermission (a pause in action that made the bluegrass fans in the crowd giggle a little), during “Call the Captain.” Here, horns and woodwinds took center stage (metaphorically, of course, as the symphony was seated as the Steep Canyon Rangers roamed the front of the stage), and partway through the song, the Steep Canyon Rangers parted three by three to the sides of the stage, letting the orchestra carry the song for a while as darkness settled over a steamy Southern evening.
While the symphony added some power and dimension to the set, it was very much a Steep Canyon show. Where orchestral accompaniment wouldn’t fit in, the symphony sat out. But they didn’t sleep through the breaks — they watched and listened intently during songs when they didn’t play, including conductor David Glover, who stood unobtrusively behind the band and many times nodded appreciatively as he swayed along. During “Two Steps Over the Line,” the string players added some booming pizzicato (some call it plucking), then, when their instruments were down, joined the audience in clapping along to the raucous song.
The band members seemed right at home, despite the army of orchestra members behind them, and fiddle player Nicky Sanders might have felt especially so, considering his classical training. That didn’t restrain him from his usual energetic playing, however, and he closed second set with “Auden’s Train,” where the rest of the band pulls back as Sanders enters what I call “beast mode,” riffing on the song’s train theme on both fiddle and voice and folding in snippets of music from across the universe, including plenty of classical melodies that this crowd especially appreciated, as well as a little “Johnny B. Goode.” (Here's a look at "Auden's Train" from a different performance, a few years ago. See? Beast mode.)
Maybe I’m biased, as I’m a bluegrass fan who played viola in symphony orchestras in high school and college, but to me there’s plenty of kinship between classical and bluegrass music. Both are fueled by virtuosity, and feature music that’s driven by the energy of the playing itself, not by drums (though SCR drummer Mike Ashworth’s percussion work has only augmented the band and its sound, because it’s just another instrument in the mix, not a crutch). Both pull from a long-established canon of songs, but today draw fans who eagerly cheer on innovation.
It’s always encouraging (and sometimes hilarious) to people-watch in a crowd that mixes symphony fans with followers of a more modern music. One symphony season-ticket holder (or so I assume, only because her group’s incredible wine-cheese-snacks spread indicated they had done this before) camped out in front of me asked a neighbor “What IS bluegrass, anyway? Is it like ‘Dueling Banjos’? Is that what it is?”
“Well, erm, no,” he replied. “I mean, not all of it is like that.”
On a summer evening where fireflies helped us celebrate the fact that the earlier rain never escalated above a drizzle, we all learned something, which is why shows like this are important. And besides that, they’re fun, which is a point the Steep Canyon Rangers and the NC Symphony never lost sight of.