Peter Rowan played with Bill Monroe at the Grand Ole Opry. He played with Jerry Garcia in San Francisco. He even jammed with Bob Dylan. Yet on Wednesday, November 6, 2013, he played a show in front of a couple of hundred people at the New Earth Music Hall in Athens, GA. Tickets were $15 each and the entertainment included two opening bands.
I decided to make the 70 mile drive from my office in North Atlanta to the little venue off Dougherty Street. Leaving at 5, I made it to Athens around 7:30. On my way up the venue tweeted that there would not be an opening act… there would be two. My hopes for enjoying a couple of hours of world-class music and still get seven hours of sleep were squashed.
Mr. Rowan has steadily returned to his bluegrass roots. 2010’s Legacy, recorded as the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, signaled the transition. This year’s The Old School brings it full circle, presenting classics and originals in a manner that would make Bill Monroe proud. The performance in Athens heavily featured the material.
The band emerged without their star, although Peter was not far behind, and the blowing of a conch shell signaled the start of the show. The second number, “In the Pines” as popularized by Monroe, got the crowd going with the inclusion of “the Georgia line” lyric. Rowan lifted his guitar for his first solo of the evening and the thunder of the bass notes impressed. So too often I feel like the guitar gets lost in a bluegrass mix, but on this evening it was rightfully featured. Keith Little used the opportunity to show off a little banjo blues. After the song, Mr. Rowan acknowledged the crowd for the first time in the young evening, explaining that the band liked to open with traditional material before introducing their own.
Mr. Little’s high-lonesome range was prominently displayed throughout the evening, and Peter acknowledged his banjo player’s reputation as one of the premier traditional voices during an introduction to the Stanley Brother’s “I’m Lonesome Without You.” Rowan cited the song as forming the basis of bluegrass music leading into the performance, adding, “that and tuners.” He continued, “if we had automatic tuners, the 60’s never would have happened.”
Another first set standout, special guest Yungchen Lhamo – a Tibetan mantra singer and refugee – joined the group to compliment 2010’s “Across the Rolling Hills.” Prior to starting the song, Mr. Rowan introduced his guest and the mantra repeated through the song, “Padmasambhava.” Someone in the audience decided it sounded like something about Panama City and announced as much to the crowd, to which Rowan corrected him by responding, “not ‘Panama Red’, we’ll get to that later.” The audience was delighted. Towards the end of the tune, Rowan and Lhamo exchanged yodeling for chanting, almost as if speaking in tongues to one another.
Riding the emotions of the audience, Mr. Rowan introduced one of his best known songs with the familiar “bluegrass breakdown” about Monroe and the tune that would forever link the two. For those unfamiliar with the story, Mr. Rowan was driving Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys from the Grand Ole Opry to Beanblossom, Indiana. At first light, the bus – affectionately known as the “bluegrass breakdown -lived up to her name” in Horse Cave, Kentucky. Peter explains the spiritual feeling of this old Indian country, suggesting that something almost supernatural motivated Monroe to state, “Peter Rowans (ED: Peter explains, “he always called me plural”), you listen to this and don’t you ever forget it.” Mr. Rowan added his contribution and the result is known as “The Walls of Time.”
Lhamo took a moment to address the crowd, which was a difficult interchange given her soft voice and the much too talkative crowd. Nonetheless, she lead the room in a chanting exercise that involved a steady pitched hum, while she and the band did a sort of vocal jam on top of the audience contribution. It was a uniquely Peter Rowan moment, to which the guitarist inquired afterward, “bluegrass, don’t you just love it?”
Keith Little then lead the vocally charged “Let Me Walk By Your Side” before Mr. Rowan began to take a moment to introduce the dobro player, Mike Witcher. The aforementioned crowd was not paying the interaction the respect Rowan believed it deserved, prompting him to sternly state, “folks, I’m going to need your full attention.” It was a rare, much deserved moment of frustration for a man that strikes me as one of the easiest spirits around.
Around this time Peter announced that the band was about to take a “pause for the cause,” much to my surprise. I didn’t expect an opening act, let alone two. And I certainly did expect the 71 year old Rowan to play two sets of music, not when I’d attended a performance by the much younger Noam Pikelny a week before in the same town and been treated to one. Intermission lasted roughly fifteen minutes and saw the band available for snapshots and autographs.
The second set got started right around midnight. The band played straight up versions of “Jailer, Jailer” and “The Family Demon”, the opening tracks off Legacy. Both are standouts and immediately familiar, even to a first-time listener.
The lead track from The Old School, “Keepin’ it Between the Lines (Old School)” was next. Rowan told a story about asking Vasser Clements – a co-member of Old and In the Way – to recall his experiences with Bill Monroe. Clements witted, “you know, Pete, same as you. Drive all night, shave in cold water, raise your hand up high and smile.” This conversation directly lead to the chorus of the song. Watching Rowan interact with Little, Witcher, Paul Knight (bass), and Chris Henry (mandolin), you get the idea he is a much easier boss than Monroe.
The smile educing “Drop the Bone” was followed by ragged “Ragged Old Dream.” At this point, a little after 12:30, the thought of a 90-minute drive and 7 AM wake-up call got the best of me and I disappointingly excused myself. I hate it but responsibility does call from time to time.
My brief walk to the car left me considering the high quality of music that I’d just seen from a living legend. At fifteen dollars, the entertainment I’d just received as a ridiculous value.
As soon as I hopped in the car and flipped around on the radio, I caught the Luke Bryan hit “That’s My Kind of Night” on the radio. No, it isn’t a legendary song nor is Bryan a legendary artist. It is a fun song by a fun artist. Based on my limited Internet research, it looks like Mr. Bryan played to a sold-out crowd for $35 a head the last time he was in Georgia. Fun should be playing Athens on a Wednesday night for $15 with two opening acts and a loud audience.
Legends like Mr. Rowan should be playing to standing room only crowds and commanding top dollar. Get out and see him while you can.