We all nodded with the opening beat like a gallery of metronomes while rhythm filled the Colonial Theater last night. Young and old packed the house and moved as one on the dance floor. Hands waved like flowers in a field and every call from the MCs claimed a response in loud, bold unison from the Bethlehem audience. From my haunt, halfway between concessions and stage, I saw sights that stymied and inspired at the same time. An aged man in a blue blazer, who looked unnervingly like my childhood pediatrician, dabbed first with his left forearm, then his right, bouncing on his loafered heels. A kindly gray and blond haired woman, who had cut me in line earlier urgently ordering two Chardonnays and two pretzels, was observed booty dancing with an older gentleman I recalled from the restroom line, who was now, eyes closed tight, wagging his best nay nay at the stage.
This melodic model of art and experience was glued together by the driving rhythm guitar. A banjo was plucked with lightning dexterity. A dobro sang at times and then was made to scream. I heard traditional bluegrass harmonies get bumped aside to accommodate the needed space for complicated rhymes that sprayed us playfully like a thesaurus shot from a wood chipper into a headwind. Elated listeners got real low, jumped up, jumped up, and got down. Then a solo. A slide ran its glassy sustain up and down the dobro. The boy with the banjo made Eddie Van Halen smile somewhere as rapid fire arpeggio shot all over the theater of fists pumping in the air. He pushed with his hips as if birthing every sixteenth note right there on stage. The audience went from curious theater attendees to Metalheads in a minute. An audience that was mostly a little old for Tupac and maybe a little young for Metallica were bumping fists and gyrating hips and I found myself unconsciously raising a plastic cup of Cabernet Sauvignon in the back corner screaming by myself, “Yeahhhhh!” There was a shrieking dobro trading fours with a machine gun banjo when a seven foot battle rapper took center stage.
It was then that I heard the line of the night. “I travel with a group of musical mutants,” was spouted into the mic and the big MC wearing a backpack filled with pens and notebooks gave a name to what none of us felt comfortable trying to describe. The genre enlightening us at the Colonial Theatre last night was indeed a mutation. Like a combination of performance art and X-Men comics, music took a spontaneous giant leap forward before our eyes. For too long the tinkling banjo has needed to rage with distortion and reverb. The classic dobro has wanted to scream ever since it saw Jimmy Hendrix set its cousin on fire at Monterey Pop back in ‘67. Gangstagrass formed to nurture these long held back instrumental expressions of emotion and power.
The standard song subjects of rambling, prison, trains, water, and light have been sung before. But last night the rhythm guitar, accompanied by a hip hop beat, chugged down the tracks of progress and took us all along. If I passed the dobro player on the street I might have thought yoga teacher or farmers’ market vendor. But on stage she gripped a room full of listeners with haunting vocal harmonies and slide guitar incantations that swirled within her instrument and enchanted us all so that we forgot to dance for a minute there. We were lulled into a trance and then with a thrashing of banjo strings we were fevered into head banging as our minds processed the performance equivalents of the music satellites must hear when nobody is listening and the sounds a banjo can make when it’s strapped into an electric chair and sprayed down with gasoline. Always the rhythm guitar is strumming with the steady consistency that supports the rest of the painting as gesso does a fresh canvas. Then the MCs brought us back to the realm for which we listeners were best equipped. We waved our hands in the air, we clapped and responded “grass” to calls of “gangsta” and for two sets of all kinds of heavy stimulation the North Country didn’t want it to stop.