In an effort to keep the prospectors from fleeing the foothills of North Georgia for California, Dahlonega’s mayor has been attributed as saying, “there’s gold in them thar hills.” He would have uttered the same remark had he been in The Crimson Moon Cafe for The HillBenders. The band exceeded expectations built on their reputation for high energy live performances and a commanding stage presence.
If there was ever a time for a letdown, this was it. The Crimson Moon Cafe is an intimate venue/restaurant/coffeehouse/bar. Pre-sales had been slow. The day’s weather – at least in appearance – was more wintry than fall, with grey skies and a steady rain. Moreover, you could understand the band looking forward to the next show: the following evening they supported John Cowan (New Grass Revival, Doobies Brothers) at Bluegrass Underground.
But the room filled up, the venue’s intimacy provided great acoustics, and the band rocked it out HillBenders’ style. Nolan Lawrence, mandolinist and emcee, kicked things off with one of the band’s better known tracks, “Train Whistle.” Lawrence looks the part, having an almost David Grisman like appearance and attitude. His vocal power is borderline insane… he probably has the chops to pull off some opera if he ever got the notion.
Chad “Gravy Boat” Graves took the lead on “Honky Tonk Night Time Man,” a Merle Haggard cover that fits his personality to a T. Graves has a throwback image and stage presence, part Nashville and part Memphis. You get the feeling he should have been born thirty- or forty- years earlier. He spent some time in Nashville supporting international touring musicians and can really work the slide on the dobro.
“Planes, Trains & Automobiles” gave guitarist Jimmy Rea a chance to take the lead, a reminder of the vocal depth of the band. Jimmy performs like a rockstar and looks like he is having a blast bending it for the crowd. His cousin, Gary Rea, plays the upright, adds harmonies, and keeps the band on track throughout the night.
At one point in the evening, Lawrence took some time while the band was tuning to explain the band’s influences. He basically just named every type of music you can think of and said they add some bluegrass to it. Truly, The HillBenders’ catalog is as diverse as their tastes in beer (members sampled everything from Yuengling to Atlanta’s own Sweetwater IPA). From an appearance and stage presence perspective, the band looks to be about half Old Crow Medicine Show and half Greensky Bluegrass.
Banjoist Mark Cassidy is a tour-de-force on his instrument. Its always a nice treat to get to see an instrumentalist of his caliber, particularly a banjo player in the Southern Appalachians. “Kids” was his first vocal contribution of the evening. From there, the band introduced “Clutch” as an instrumental so named “because it kind of switches gears on you.” As great as all the voices are, I found myself really enjoying the instrumentals this evening.
The Crimson Moon Cafe stands in contrast to the town, the surrounding University of North Georgia and its military-roots. The wait staff balanced out the crowd of mostly conservative-types. One of the waitresses even had a flower in her hair… A FLOWER IN HER HAIR! The Crimson Moon Cafe is obviously a friend to the arts and a wonderful place to see music. I’ll keep an eye on the schedule and look forward to returning.
A highlight of the night, the band turned tuning into a bit of a jam session before exploding into “Concrete Ribbon.” Lawrence held the last note for so long that one of the older gentlemen in the crowd belted out a “mercy!” There was a similar moment during “Midnight Oil” before the band presented their cover of The Wood Brothers “One More Day.”
“Spinning in Circles” featured an extended, higher register mandolin-banjo jam that really impressed. The Lennon-McCartney penned “With a Little Help From My Friends” was the standout cover of the evening, again emphasizing the vocal efforts of Lawrence. After a brief stage-exit, the band returned and Lawrence whitted, “we were debating backstage did we want to do a ballad with about twenty verses of a super-fast banjo tune.” The crowd voice their opinion and The HillBenders obliged, leading into the hard-charging traditional “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.”
On a night that demonstrated the groups range of material, it was fitting that they closed out the evening with a bluegrass-staple. At the end of the day, they’re a quintessential jamgrass band. They respect and appreciate the traditions of bluegrass but apply their influences to make it their own. Above all, they present a roller coaster performance that is not to be missed.