Dawes Unites Eclectic Lineup at L.A. Bluegrass Situation 2015: Live Review

The L.A. Bluegrass Situation 2015
Chris Willman

That rumbling you heard Saturday night in L.A. wasn’t approaching rainstorms, but rather the sound of Bill Monroe turning over in his grave at the thought of the word “bluegrass” being applied to any of the bands playing the Greek Theatre that night under that banner.

It really was a misnomer for most of them, but the purveyors of the Bluegrass Situation -- an Ed Helms-formed org that doubles as a website and an annual festival -- would tell you that for their purposes, bluegrass is more a state of mind than a genre. And a blissful state it was as the 10 assembled acts beat back the threat of showers with whatever pluckable weapons were at hand, plus a few screaming electric solos and jam-band moments to boot.

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Saturday’s show came off as a very compacted, one-day, West Coast version of the Americana Festival that took place in Nashville two weeks prior, taking place under the very wide umbrella of roots music, which encompasses choral folk-rock, hillbilly music, alt-country and, yes, even some newgrass. The headliner, local favorite Dawes, was the bill’s biggest outlier, rocking out with nary an acoustic instrument in sight and few obvious influences farther than a 15-mile radius from the Greek. But Laurel Canyon counts as a holler kind of, right?

Trying to create a festival atmosphere in a city amphitheater is usually a fool’s mission, but the Bluegrass Situation pulled it off as well as could be done outside of a park setting with some smart staging that basically divided the day into two types of music experiences. For the first three hours, while the main seating entrances remained closed, a couple thousand of the hardiest patrons gathered in the Greek’s plaza area to hear a succession of acts on a second stage, while also playing cornhole, visiting the “free haiku” booth, and feasting from BBQ or organic food trucks. Once the curtains opened for the six remaining hours of music on the main stage, a little of that communal spirit was lost, as a late-arriving older crowd joined the young-and-bearded early-birds. But not even the move over to the traditional seating setup harshed the mellow vibe that helped put a peaceful benediction on Nederlander’s waning days running the Greek.

Attendance for these early hours on the plaza well exceeded expectations, to the point that there was no trace of bitterness when Sam Outlaw quipped, “Growing up in Southern California, it was a lifetime dream to almost play the Greek Theatre.” Outlaw, who has a new Ry Cooder-produced indie debut out, played the only serious country music of the day -- an interesting development, since alt-country and Americana seemed nearly interchangeable when the scene began developing two decades ago. In his otherwise not-very-jokey set, a waggish highlight was “Jesus Take the Wheel and Drive Me to a Bar,” which risked retribution both from the Lord and Carrie Underwood’s lawyers. Also on the plaza stage, Spirit Family Reunion established that Brooklyn produces excellent bumpkins, too, and raised the musical question of whether a washboard is too bluegrass or not bluegrass enough. Dustbowl Revival proved just how substantial the side-stage crowd was by getting completely swallowed up in it when they ventured into the audience to sing “Midnight Special” among the hillbilly hoi polloi.

Over on the main stage, there was far less of a strain of mountain music in the evening’s underdogs, the Lone Bellow, although their tight three-part harmonies certainly hark back to that tradition, even if the music doesn’t. Their fans may or may not appreciate the comparison, but the trio could be seen as the mainstream rock version of country’s Lady Antebellum, except in this case all three members of the male-female-male vocal pyramid take on lead vocals at least once in the set. They occupy an earnest, soaringly anthemic space few other contemporary outfits do, and they’d be the band “most likely to…” if only there were an obvious commercial place to put them. As it was, there were a few patrons (most likely listeners to local KCSN, where the group is ubiquitous) that left after the third-billed Lone Bellow, figuring they’d already seen the headliners they came for.

On the main stage, there were two acts in particular -- Punch Brothers and the all-female quintet Della Mae -- that might’ve made Bill Monroe rotate just a little less slowly, if only for sticking to the drumless bluegrass tradition. Well, put an asterisk on that, since Punch Brothers violinist Gabe Witcher did somehow manage to play a drum kit and fiddle at the same time for the closing number of that set. It’s no wonder these guys are big on the jam-band as well as roots circuits: They’re pretty much the King Crimson of bluegrass, with a virtuosity that wins over the common ear every time even if the common ear can’t quite follow every lickety-split chord progression. Chris Thile, soon to be your next companion on the public-radio prairie, has a mischievous spirit that makes him come off like a scrawnier, more impish, back-arching Jude Law, with banjo prodigy Noam Pikelny as his more sober foil. They might be the only pure string band out there that has the charisma, chops, and anarchic energy level to headline the Greek on their own.

But the evening’s ostensible headliner was, of course, Dawes, as fine a traditional-issue rock band as exists in the world right now. Taylor Goldsmith is that rare combination of a deeply reflective songwriter and highly demonstrative frontman, and playing their biggest hometown show to date added an extra rationale for the wide-stance hopping he’s prone to during Dawes’ faster-paced songs. He’s fairly close to a guitar hero on his own, so fans weren’t quite sure what to think when the band added a second lead guitarist, Duane Betts, this spring -- but you might have been tempted to compliment his and Goldsmith’s Duane-and-Dickey interplay even before realizing that Betts is indeed Allman Brothers legend Dickey Betts’ son. Newly missing, meanwhile, was keyboard player Tay Strathairn, whose departure from the band had been announced only Wednesday. That’s an unusual mid-tour move, but whoever had just been drafted to take his place (Goldsmith referred to him only as “Lee”) sounded like he’d been playing the group’s Jackson Browne-esque piano licks all his life, so a transition strategy was clearly in place.

As sweet as the sounds of the Lone Bellow had been earlier, it took Dawes to show what can happen if you throw some barbs in amid all that beauty. If Dawes’ set had a fault, it was the relative underservicing of their new album, All Your Favorite Bands -- one of the year’s best -- though maybe you can’t blame them for emphasizing the tried-and-true festival favorites in a fest setting. That left a little room at the end of the set for the other musicians to come out for a full-cast rendition of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” a reminder that Dylan, not Monroe, is the real godfather of this particular strain of so-called bluegrass. Maybe instead of Americana, we should call it Bob-grass?