This past weekend, I was down in Louisiana, visiting The Girl and her family, and we had an opportunity to catch Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs and their band, Kentucky Thunder, perform at Lafayette's Heymann Center for the Performing Arts. Great show, and one of the most invigorating uses of bluegrass I've heard. I'll admit it's a genre I'll admit I generally have little affection for: there's often something about its twangy banjos and pinprick vocal harmonizing that I find off-putting. But Skaggs, Hornsby and their remarkable band treated the form less like some kind of O Brother-style bastion of 'authenticity' than as a fluid, flexible meeting place of country, blues, jazz and pop: a town square of musical forms (a melange that allowed them to move easily from Bill Monroe to Rick James' "Superfreak"). Three acoustic guitars, a banjo and bass fiddle, a remarkable violinist named Andy Leftwich , Skaggs' mandolin and Hornsby's piano created a down-home version of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound: there was a real weight, texture and propulsiveness to their sound that was as reminiscent of a be-bop jam as it was a bluegrass concert. That quality was enhanced by everyone's keen improvisational skills (Hornsby's and Leftwich's especially), and the way they stretched and reimagined well-known pop hits; "Old Valley Road" became a galloping, free-wheeling jaunt whose high spirits cut ironically against its dark lyrics of love betrayed and power consolidated, while the power ballady "Mandolin Rain," a song I hated when it was a hit twenty years ago, took on a revelatory quality in its new arrangement: shifted to a minor key, with Hornsby singing in a lower blues octave, it felt less like one of Michael Bolton's outtakes than like some lost Irish funeral song, a folk piece of tremendous sadness and loss.
That's pretty much the way the whole night went, a group of supremely professional musical polymaths moving between instrumentals and pop songs, covers and original tunes. By the time they brought local legend D.L. Menard onstage as part of their encore, it was clear that Hornsby, Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder had the crowd eating out of their hands. "I've already had two bowls of gumbo!," Skaggs annouced in early between-song patter, that dish's mix of flavors, textures and colors might've acted as a wonderful metaphor for the dish he and Hornsby cooked up on stage Friday night.