Category Archives: Show Reviews

Reviews of live performances that in now way share the opinions of

Larry Keel’s Acoustic Power Trio

I have a confession to make: even though Larry Keel is my favorite guitar player (my current guitar was even selected because of its similarities to one he used to play), I’ve only seen him perform live once. That performance was with Keller and the Keels, a trio consisting of Keller Williams, Larry, and Jenny Keel. When I found out Larry would be playing within 90-miles of home three times within a month, I was tickled.

For the first performance Larry brought Jenny and another Natural Bridge picker – Will Lee – to the Grant Street Music Room in Clarkesville, GA, performing as the Larry Keel Acoustic Power Trio. I made the long, 75-mile drive from home alone, with a bit of a stressful week of travel facing me. I arrived at the venue in the little town nestled among the North Georgia foothills unsure of what to expect, and when I got there I briefly considered making the drive back home promptly.

The venue is fine. It’s a large restaurant/bar with a stage at the end. Packed tables of noisy patrons filled the room, deadening the sound of the opening act Jason Kenney. The place was so packed I stood in the back near the entrance, a mistake as the bar occupies space to the immediate right, and they were much louder (and less interested in the stage) than the seemingly thousands of people in between me and the stage. A thin wall separates the bar from a bowling alley and the spectacular crashes that occur when the well-honed locals attack the pins. I kept a watchful eye on the area closest to the stage, looking for a chance to steel a seat, but was repeatedly dejected. Still, the people were nice so I decided to stick around in hopes of catching a break and getting a break.

I caught my break shortly before Keel and gang took the stage, as a nice little elderly foursome led by a man in a tie-dye cleared a table right up front. I followed their lead, asked if I could share their table, and they kindly agreed. My nerves eased significantly and the sound upfront was loud enough to mute the crowd behind me.

The band took the stage with a blistering “Whiskey Before Breakfast” and I was pumped because it is a song I’ve been learning lately in my bluegrass for dummies studies. The sound of the Acoustic Power Trio is in stark contrast to the Keel of 2004’s Beautiful Thing, the documentary filmed about Keel. In the film, Larry and Jenny emphasize their efforts of reproducing the sound of their acoustic instruments through amplification in the most accurate way possible. The Acoustic Power Trio just rocks out, peddles and all.

Will Lee is an extremely talented man. Who sang lead on a few songs through the evening, including “Flora” from 2012’s Classic. He started the evening with a well-worn, large body Gibson and to my surprise picked up to the standard I regard for Keel himself. The real magic in the trio, however, comes when he picks up the five-string. His amplified effort summons flashbacks of the late, great Mark Vann, whom the band honored during the evening with the song he wrote alongside Keel. Larry referenced Will’s pedigree: his dad, who taught him how to play, played with Ralph Stanley.

Highlights from the evening’s two sets included Keel and Lee paying tribute to Tony Rice’s version of “Cattle In the Cane,” as Keel made a plea to the crowd to donate to the Tony Rice Foundation. The newgrass staple “Watermelon Man” highlighted Larry’s vocal growl and a few songs in the evening paid tribute to the aforementioned Stanley. A couple of other songs off Classic were on display, as “Love” and “I’m No Doctor” were met appreciatively by the crowd.

Having not seen Keel up so close before, I couldn’t help but watch his fingers dance and his right-hand pick with a raging jealousy. He truly is a gift on the guitar. To my surprise, I was also quite impressed with his stage presence. His approach was friendly, personal, and jocular as he often spoke to the crowd between songs and expressed his appreciation for their support. It struck me as amusing that this band seemed so genuinely happy to be playing this evening in front of a couple of hundred folks, when just a couple of weeks before I noted that one of my favorite rock groups playing in front of a much larger audience seemed to just be going through the motions at times.

Larry Keel’s Acoustic Power Trio has six more dates scattered through February and March. The trio can get as loud and fast as friends play solid body guitars, as Keel himself mentioned at one point that he felt like Hendrix up on stage (although that mostly had to do with the volume coming out of his monitor). The instrumental display, effects, showmanship, and smiles are a must-see.

02/27/14    Annapolis, MD       Rams Head on Stage
02/28/14    Snowshoe, WV        Beats in the Basin
03/01/14    Richmond, VA        Capital Ale House
03/13/14    Berryville , VA     Barns of Rose Hill
03/14/14    Morgantown, WV      123 Pleasant Street
03/15/14    Washington, DC      Gypsy Sally’s

Support and purchase tracks from Larry Keel at!


Railroad Earth Brings 3 Nights Of New Tunes To Asheville For NYE

Railroad Earth performs at Asheville, NC’s The Orange Peel on 12/30/2013. Photo by Eric Rayburn.

Words & Pictures by Eric Rayburn

For the first time in its 13 year history, Railroad Earth brought in the New Year in the South. Spreading the joy across 3 days at Asheville, NC’s Orange Peel Social Aid and Pleasure Club, the band played to packed crowds on December 29 and 30th. A sold out show on the 31st had fans stalking the front of the club with one finger in the frigid night air looking for tickets that were few and far between.

Carey Harmon of Railroad Earth performs at Asheville, NC’s The Orange Peel on 12-31-13. Photo by Eric Rayburn.

River Whyless, an Asheville quartet, opened the first 2 nights. Formed in 2009, the group combines Americana with baroque-folk. Led by vocalists Ryan O’Keefe and Halli Anderson they turned heads with their innovative sound.

Railroad Earth performs at The Orange Peel in Asheville, NC on 12-30-13. Photo by Eric Rayburn.

The run began with “Like a Buddha” and the smiles spread across the room as the “Hobos” in the crowd started to dance. The first set ended with what may be the group’s break-through song “Chasin’ a Rainbow” off the upcoming album Last of the Outlaws, which is being released January 14, 2014. The song has been getting a fair amount of radio airplay in numerous markets across the country. The second set of the night saw a breakout as the title track was played for the first time. Slow and haunting, “Last of the Outlaws” brought the tempo down before building to a crescendo with an “Elko” closer that had numerous decks of cards flung into the air during the line “I need a card! I need a card!”.

Railroad Earth performs at The Orange Peel in Asheville, NC on 12/29/2013. Photo by Eric Rayburn.

Night two picked up right where the previous night left off with “Way of the Buffalo,” a seldom played “bonus track” off of 2004’s The Good Life. A frenetic “Untitled #12” saw fiddler Tim Carbone almost saw through his strings in the middle of the set, which ended with another song off the new album, “One More Night on the Road”. Andrew Altman was dropping bass bombs on a “Walk Beside Me” encore that soundman Mike Partridge had dialed in perfectly. People walking out into the mountain air were excitedly talking about the NYE show and throwing around predictions for songs.

Timothy Carbone of Railroad Earth performs at The Orange Peel in Asheville, NC on 12-31-13. Photo by Eric Rayburn.

New Years Eve 2013 saw the Peel transformed with decorations to reflect the “Moonlight Masquerade” theme the band had chosen for the night. There was even a brand new backdrop for the show painted by Alyssa Trudel, an artist living in Healdsburg, CA. The backdrop depicted North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain, which is also the title of a new song on “Last of the Outlaws”. Many of the fans in attendance were dressed in masks and costumes for the night which began with “Seven Story Mountain” that transitioned into “Mighty River”. The aforementioned “Grandfather Mountain” appeared in the middle of the first set and showed the power and beauty in the words of songwriter Todd Sheaffer.

Todd Sheaffer of Railroad Earth performs at The Orange Peel in Asheville, NC on 12-30-13. Photo by Eric Rayburn.

The second set saw the band re-emerge from backstage wearing masquerade masks to ring in 2014. The obligatory balloon drop brought the first song of the New Year- another new one, “Monkey” was played for the first time. Throughout the run, the light show, choreographed by Alex Anderson, complimented the music perfectly, adding that extra layer that always makes Railroad Earth shows so enjoyable. The coming out party for the new CD continued with a tune that was talked about and anticipated by many through the 3 days. “Face with a Hole” was debuted sandwiched between “The Forecast” and “Spring-Heeled Jack”. This new song is a part of a 21-minute multi-movement piece composed by Sheaffer and mandolinist John Skehan. An encore of the Charles Johnson’s “My Sisters and Brothers” – made popular by Jerry Garcia – had many grooving and singing along as they bid farewell to the band and walked out the doors and into a new year.

The Infamous Stringdusters Play Ziggy’s by the Sea

The Infamous Stringdusters perform at Ziggy’s by the Sea on 12/14/2013. Photo by Eric Rayburn.

The Infamous Stringdusters brought the Road to Boulder tour to a close in Wilmington, NC on December 14 at Ziggy’s by the Sea. The tour, which featured Denver-based Paper Bird as support, was sponsored by Oskar Blues Brewing and raised funds for flood relief efforts in the Front Range area of Colorado. That area, which includes Planet Bluegrass in Lyons, was hit with devastating floods in September of this year. One dollar from every ticket sold throughout the tour, which began in Madison, WI, will go directly to flood relief efforts, according to The Stringdusters’ website.

Paper Bird opens for The Infamous Stringdusters at Ziggy’s by the Sea on 12/14/2013. Photo by Eric Rayburn.

The show began with a short set from Paper Bird, a septet consisting of two sets of siblings, Genny and Esme Patterson (vocals) and Sarah and Mark Anderson (vocals and drums) along with Caleb Summeril (banjo, guitar), Macon Terry (upright bass) and Paul DeHaven (guitar). While the music of Paper Bird isn’t bluegrass but more of a folk/roots groove, the band, which was the winner of 2013 FloydFest’s On the Rise competition, blends haunting melodies and harmonizing by the 3 women with on-point musicianship from the men. Playing songs from the new album Rooms, the group had won over many new fans by the end of the set and “Who was that?” and “I like this!” was heard repeatedly in the crowd.

After a short break, The Stringdusters took the stage for the second time this year in Wilmington. In April, they opened the outdoor season at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater. This time they played to a packed house at Ziggy’s by the Sea. The 750-person venue is the newest addition to the music scene in Wilmington and the first branch of the revered Winston-Salem club that has played host to Phish and Widespread Panic among others. Kicking off a 30-song performance with “Ain’t No Way of Knowing” and moving quickly into “Fork in the Road” the quartet from Virginia showed the excitement and smiles the ‘Dusters’ fans have come to expect. Behind the vocals of dobro player Andy Hall, “Well Well” changed from an frenetic number to a spacey 7-and-a-half minute jam. The Flatt & Scruggs essential “I’m Head Over Heels In Love” followed before a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, the first of two Dylan covers of the night.

Andy Falco of The Infamous Stringdusters performs at Ziggy’s by the Sea. Photo by Eric Rayburn.

The Stringdusters’ brand of bluegrass moved between more traditional sounding numbers like “17 Cents” to more progressive songs such as “Like I Do” which employs more use of Andy Hall’s special dobro sound. Bassist Travis Book got soulful on vocals during the groovy “All the Same”. The beautiful instrumental “Middle Fork” brought guitarist Andy Falco (and his red pants) to the fore and showcased his perfect flatpicking. Jeremy Garrett lit up the strings on his fiddle during “Time to Part” as Hall took over the vocals. The blend of vocalists (the only one who doesn’t sing is banjoist Chris Pandolfi) is one of the many things that can help take the band in so many directions and guards against a stale stage show.

Chris “Panda” Pandolfi of The Infamous Stringdusters performs at Ziggy’s by the Sea. Photo by Eric Rayburn.

During the setbreak, the friendliness and excitement of the “Jamily” (more hardcore fans of the band) showed as people introduced themselves to each other and celebrated with those who were being “Dusted” for the first time.

The second set opened with “Light and Love”, “Rivers Run Cold” and “How Far I’d Fall”. This was followed by “Don’t Mean Nothin’” off the most recent album Silver Sky, a song referred to as “Heavy Metal” on setlists. An over 9-minute “No More to Leave You Behind” flowed into a “3×5” that clocked in at 6-and-a-half minutes, bringing an extended jam that had smiles throughout the venue. Things picked back up with “Hitchhiker” and featured Pandolfi picking at a furious pace. The show closed with “Echoes of Goodbye” before a goose-bump inducing encore of “I Shall Be Released” that brought out the ladies from Paper Bird for the vocals.

The Infamous Stringdusters perform at Ziggy’s by the Sea. Photo by Eric Rayburn.

The Infamous Stringdusters leave it all on the stage night after night, not holding back and giving fans more than their money’s worth at each show and this was no exception. This show, and all other live shows, can be streamed for free from The Show Hive on the band’s website.

-Words and Pictures by Eric Rayburn

Editor’s Note: A fellow Dawg from the University of Georgia – America’s finest institution of higher learning – Eric has a background in journalism but earns his pay as a physician assistant in the emergency room. A resident of Wilmington, North Carolina, Eric and his wife enjoy traveling for shows and taking care of their two bulldogs, Munson and Loran. He takes great photos and obviously has great taste in blogs. A big thanks is due to Mr. Rayburn for allowing me to take a night off!

Follow The Infamous Stringdusters on Spotify and be sure to shop for tracks using this link from our Associate account at Remember, 100% of’s proceeds for the remainder of 2013 will be donated to the Tony Rice Foundation. Buy these tracks or anything you want through the link and help out one of bluegrass music’s true greats!

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Exploring Bluegrass The Packway Handle Band Way

The Packway Handle Band, Eddie's Attic, Decatur, GA 12/7/2013
The Packway Handle Band performed an early set at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, GA on 12/7/2013. Like their namesake, Packway Handle is not easily defined. The band brings their own style to bluegrass through unique originals, surprising covers, instrumental prowess, and lyrics at times witty or a little strange.

The show kicked off with “Not a Song” and “There’s Something Going On In The Graveyard (Like You Aint’ Never Seen),” the latter featuring a nice guitar and mandolin jam and banjo-player Tom Baker displaying his command of the five string. Guitarist Josh Erwin provided the vocals for the tune, with a vocal growl that rivals that of Larry Keel. The band then gave a nod to the recently ascending Lou Reed, performing a bluegrass infused take on “Waiting For My Man.”

The Packway Handle Band’s traditional around-the-mic approach really shines in the “listening room” environment provided by Eddie’s Attic. The venue, located down an alley and up a set of stairs, provides the city of Decatur with a haven for artists and music fans alike. A true gem in the greater city of Atlanta, the award-winning venue has hosted the likes of John Mayer, Sugarland, The Civil Wars, Sheryl Crow, and The Black Crowes. On this evening, the intimate room was packed with appreciative fans soaking up the good-time, old-timey music.

The band’s showmenship and affinity for the uniqe was on full display in the middle of the set, with fiddlin’ frontman Andrew Heaton’s unique “Earl the Duck” and “Satan’s in Space” translating well to live performance. Similarly, Michael Paynter (mandolin) displayed his vocal range with an operetic introduction to the Violent Femmes “American Music” before beat-boxing with bassist Zach McCoy. If The Flaming Lips performed bluegrass, they’d probably present it much like The Packway Handle Band.

More traditionally presented offerings that stood out included the band’s treatment of Leonard Cohen’s “Diamonds In The Mine” and the original “Wish I Hadn’t Done It.” Still, the latter half of the set continued to interject distinctive trademarks, including Paynter’s use of a kick-drum (penned “the Rattletrap”) and other percussive effects or Erwin going electric on “Nicotine and Arsenic.”

“What is a Packway Handle?” was introduced as a song about the band, inspired by the propensity of fans to inquire about the origin of the name. The recording is essential listening, highlighting the band’s quirkiness, harmonies, melodic timing, and good-time approach to music. A vicious and ominous sound, “Blood On The Fiddle” led up to the set’s finale, “Sinner, You Better Get Ready,” the band’s most traditional feeling tune of the evening. The song is always a stand-out and really highlights the band’s ability to perform vocal harmonies in the bluegrass tradition.

McCoy heaved his upright bass and led the band’s charge off the stage and into the audience for the encore, “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss.” The band made their way all the way to the other end of the room, shifting from left to right and howling the lyrics much to the delight of patrons.

Whatever a packway handle is, The Packway Handle Band is must-see bluegrass presented with showman’s style.

Support this site and buy tracks or albums (or anything you want!) by The Packway Handle Band through is a proud member of Amazon’s Associate Program. Don’t forget, 100% of the proceeds  generated through our Amazon account will be donated to the Tony Rice Foundation from now through the end of 2013!

Need an introduction to The Packway Handle Band? Check out our “ Recommends – The Packway Handle Band” feature complete with a brief fact sheet, recommended tracks, and Spotify playlist. The playlist immediately below is a partial setlist from the 12/7/2013 Eddie’s Attic, pieced together on Spotify.

Dave Rawlings Machine Like Precision at the Georgia Theatre

Dave Rawlings Machine

One evening in October I was leaving band practice and heading to a local eatery to grab a late dinner when “Going to California” came on the radio. I’ve always been a fan of Led Zeppelin but my recent obsession with mandolin fueled by bluegrass made the song really resonate with me. I immediately ordered the track on iTunes (even though I had it on disc at home) so that I could listen to it over and over again. I was obsessed.

Attending a number of shows at the Georgia Theatre over the past few months, I kept seeing the bulletins for Dave Rawlings Machine. I looked up the group hoping it might be some new found bluegrass I needed to check out. I saw that Dave Rawlings was a “musical partner” to Gillian Welch, with whom I had little better than name recognition. I chalked it up as more on the folky-side than I was looking for and didn’t pay it a second thought.

Fast forward a month or so and I see a YouTube video of Dave Rawlings Machine playing “Going to California.” I’m interested. I open the video and think, “wow, that guy looks a lot like John Paul Jones.” It was John Paul Jones. I was sold. I immediately hopped on the Internet to buy tickets for the Athens show when I saw that they were playing a few miles from my house that very night. Too late to go, I went ahead and ordered tickets and promised myself never to judge a concert’s worthiness based on Wikipedia again.

The band for this special run included Rawlings, Welch, and Jones paired with Old Crow Medicine Show vet Willie Watson and Punch Brothers bassist Paul Kowert. Both are personal favorites. So, not only did I completely miss what was a pretty big tour announcement but also embarrassingly didn’t appreciate the bluegrass esteem held for Mr. Rawlings and Ms. Welch. Just over a month in and I’ve already been exposed as a complete bluegrass poser!

Sorry for the extensive lead-in for a show review but it seemed necessary given the complete shock I experienced at the Georgia Theatre on a too cold Tuesday night in November 2013. Not only was this a handful of superstars playing in my favorite place to see live music, this was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

The group opened to an eager crowd with “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” before a bit of a false start on a personal favorite, “Hot Corn Cold Corn.” Rawlings stopped early in the song, apologizing that “I think my banjo just broke.” Welch entertained the crowd while he addressed his instrument issues.

“Things are going to pick up. Excuse us, we’ve only been a band for 6 days.”
-Gillian Welch

Willie Watson’s first vocal effort was “Dry Bones,” introduced as he explained “my banjo is broken, too, but I’m going to play it anyway.”

A standout from the evening, the band made their first ever attempt at the Grateful Dead’s “Deal,” much to the delight of the Georgia Theatre crowd. Rawlings voice compliments the song nicely. A gem from the Dave Rawlings Machine album A Friend of A Friend, the song Rawlings penned with Ryan Adams, “To Be Young” really got the audience going and the sweet smells common to the Georgia Theatre really started filling the room. A trio of songs from the album closed the set, with “Monkey and the Engineer” and It’s Too Easy” shining.

The second set kicked off with likely the most popular song off A Friend of A Friend, “Ruby.” The rest of the band left the stage for a moment as Rawlings and Welch serenaded the crowd with “Sweet Tooth,” a fan favorite. Willie Watson joined the couple for a song best known to the Old Crow Medicine Show fans, “I Hear Them All,” transitioning into “This Land Is Your Land” and back. Willie kept the spotlight as the rest of the band rejoined, leading the crowd with instructions to moan “uh huh” between lines on the blues staple “Stewball.” On a stage full of top-notch entertainers, there is something about Mr. Watson that can truly capture a crowd.

Of no surprise, the real jam of the night came during “Method Acting/Cortez the Killer,” the ten minute titan from A Friend of A Friend that features the Neil Young hit in the second half. After Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately,” stage introductions followed and let me tell you, I’ve seen some powerful shows by some powerful bands at the Georgia Theatre but the crowd response as Rawlings graciously introduced each member shook the building like nothing I’ve seen in that special place.

The encore brought with it childish, Christmas-like anticipation. The band didn’t make us wait before the mandolin licks of “Going to California” echoed the great hall. I’ve had some magical musical moments but this will stand out as an all-timer. To see Mr. Jones play the part that he etched in history in the building that most defines my formative years was a moment I’ll never forget.

“Look at Miss Ohio” and “Midnight Special” served as the stuffing for this Thanksgiving feast of an encore, before the band turned their attention to The Band’s “The Weight,” another performance I’d dreamed of since reading the early show reviews. An acappella “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby” closed the show with an unexpected finesse. There wasn’t a flat lip in the building on the march to Lumpkin Street.

Everything about Dave Rawlings Machine and their Georgia Theatre performance – from the setlist to the crowd to the venue – was fitting of a supergroup. I’m not sure if it was the surprise factor of the way everything came together or what, but all in all this goes down as one my favorite shows of all time. Despite Ms. Welch’s apologies to the contrary early in the show, the performance was perfect and Dave Rawlings Machine – at least in this iteration but probably in any – is a must see.

Like any of the songs played at the show as previewed on the Spotify player below? Support this site and buy the tracks through the associate program at Amazon using the list Dave Rawlings Machine – Georgia Theatre 11/26/2013.

Todd Sheaffer’s Southern Solo Train Stops at Smith’s Olde Bar

Todd Sheaffer is an everyman, despite his position of songwriter, guitarist, and lead vocalist for acoustic rock band Railroad Earth. After the first opener closed their set I went to leave the music room – located upstairs at Smith’s Olde Bar, an Atlanta jamband institution – and walked by him. I gave him a nod and he inquired, “how you doin’, buddy?” It was a rare moment to see the headliner just chilling out enjoying an opening act and even stranger that he had a few minutes of peace to do it alone.

Once he took the stage, Todd Sheaffer becomes part of the every man. “Dandelion Wine” opened this night and when he sings the line…

“Sometimes I sing for money
Sometimes I sing for food
But most times I sing for nothing
‘Cause it’s all that I can do”

…you know where he’s coming from. Not the “all that I can do part,” but certainly that he’d be doing it even if he didn’t get paid.

A personal favorite, “The Good Life” came next. A story about a couple that leave New York for a simpler life in the country, its a romance tune second to none.

“They got bread in the oven, got books on the shelf
They’re lookin’ deep into each others’ eyes & deep into themselves
Pursuin’ ideals with grace & style
And they’re makin’ ends meet with their huckleberry guile”

A song from Sheaffer’s From Good Homes days, “Skinny Man” came next, based on his interactions with a homeless man. A gem amongst gems, “Seven Story Mountain” shined just as much in the solo intimacy of Smith’s Olde Bar as it does in the large club or amphitheater setting Railroad Earth typically plays. The song invokes a personal conversation with God, an admission of thirst, and lyrics like “sometimes I wonder who I am” that – if that catch you at the right time – can be deeply personal.

Another highlight, “Hard Livin’” tells the story of a man seeking forgiveness. It’s hard to tell if Sheaffer’s lyrics are aimed at a lover, a God, or both. Either way, its a feel good song celebrating a new course.

A new effort followed, perhaps a song about a child, beckoned an audience member to ask, “what’s the name of the song?” Todd drew a chuckle from the audience with his response.

“I’m thinking ‘Old Soul.’ That’s how I usually do it, whatever I say the most.”

“Bird in a House” was introduced with a little background story. It appears that in Sheaffer’s “starving artist phase,” he squatted in a small room of a house with a little window. There was a period of time where a little bird would come and go from the room. One day Todd came home and the bird had died in the room. “People ask me all the time what the song is about,” he continued, “and I tell them it’s about a bird.” The performance was a highlight and along with his story of “Skinny Man” served as a reminder that Sheaffer can take small things – or even things that might be an annoyance to you and to me – and turn them into lyrical art.

“Peace on Earth” signaled the end of the set but Sheaffer didn’t even make it off the stage before the audience willed him back to encore with a take on U2’s “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World.”

One thing that struck me during the evening was Sheaffer’s performance on his guitar. Often lost in the Railroad Earth setting, he seamlessly moved from fingerpicking to flatpicking, playing with emotional control to compliment his standout voice.

Todd Sheaffer is an everyman. Only Todd Sheaffer is an exceptional singer/songwriter, and this was an exceptional performance.

For more on Todd Sheaffer, check out our feature “ Recommends – Railroad Earth.”

Makeshift Recording


Bending the North Georgia Foothills: An Evening with The HillBenders at The Crimson Moon Cafe

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.

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Minnesota’s Trampled by Turtles Brings the Cool to Athens, GA

Trampled By Turtles brought the cool of hometown Duluth, MN with them to the Georgia Theatre in Athens on Tuesday, November 12, 2013. The first local evening of the year to dip below freezing, the band warmed the audience with fast pickin’ and a choice setlist.

I’ve been a fan of Trampled by Turtles for years, although this was my first show. I first got exposed to their material through the miracle of modern music shopping, with Amazon suggesting the band based on my library and past purchases. However, I’d been told and read time after time that the live experience was their trademark, despite excellent material spread amongst their six studio recordings. I got a taste of what was to come with their newest release, the must-have Live at First Avenue, hitting Spotify the day before the show. Nonetheless, I was unprepared to be completely swept off my feet.

As the evening progressed, it dawned on me that if these guys had British accents, they’d be headlining Bonnaroo and Glastonbury. I was impressed with not just the band but also the production and organization. These guys are professionals.

The origin of the name Trampled by Turtles really clicked with me on this evening. The band has an ability to lull you with a ballad (think turtles) before dialing it up with a hard-charging number that leaves you feeling trampled. Take the first few tracks of the evening as a case in point. “The Calm and the Crying Wind” – a sweeping ballad of the highest order – is followed up with the rolling “November,” before the bands explodes into the punk-grass “Codeine.” Not many bands can take you from that low to that high in ten minutes.

Dave Simonett leads the band with a comfortable confidence. He’s like the 2009 Brett Farve (the Minnesota Viking’s Farve), drawing up plays in the dirt and letting the talent around him shine. An accomplished guitar player and singer, he’s an entertainer in every sense of the word.

At the end of “Codeine,” the fiddler Ryan Young inquired about the volume of his mic. I could hear him playing so I figured all was fine, but whatever adjustment they made propelled his sound into another hemisphere in the always too short “Walt Whitman,” as the crowd responded to his solo effort with an appreciative roar. Young and mandolinist Erik Berry are the skill positions in the offense. They could probably pick with just about anyone.

Another highlight of the evening, Simonett introduces “Risk” as a “song by our banjo player (Dave Carroll), it’s a killer,” and boy is it. Carroll is completely self-taught on the five-string, taking his experience with the guitar and applying it to the banjo. He flatpicks, bringing a more mainstream, pop feel to the instrument, quintessential – along with Simonett’s vocals – to the band’s sound. Carroll’s the fullback getting the tough yards and complementing the work of Young and Berry.

The band presented their treatment of two choice covers, Bob Dylan’s “Nobody ‘Cept You” and London Wainwright III’s “The Swimming Song.” The latter featured lead vocals from bassist Tim Saxhaug, presenting a nice change-of-pace. Saxhaug has a great voice that could be leveraged more in the future. It fit the song perfectly. He’s the center anchoring the line, with bass work – an acoustic bass guitar instead of the bluegrass-traditional upright – that kept the band on pace all night.

Even though it was a Tuesday night, the crowd brought enough energy to make it feel like a Saturday… and it doesn’t get much better than Saturday in Athens, GA. A hit amongst fans, “Wait So Long” received one of the best audience receptions of the night. With the thunderous bass and chop, you could swear there was a percussionist on stage. “Sorry,” a personal highlight of the evening, took off like a steam train and received a huge response from the packed crowd.

“Oh my God, this has been so cool!”

-Quote from one of the many bearded gentlemen in the crowd

“Midnight on the Interstate” enjoyed vocal support from the crowd, as did “Alone” in bringing the set to a close. The “Whiskey” encore featured some bluesy mandolin and fierce fiddling.

At first, I was a bit surprised by the one set performance. As a “jamband” veteran, I always secretly wished that my favorite bands would just bust it for two hours rather than the multi-set marathons typically pumped out. That being said, when it actually happens I’m always sort of confused. As I marinated on it during the drive home, it made perfect sense: Trampled by Turtles are top-notch entertainers, and the number one rule of entertainment is “always leave them wanting more.”

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Peter Rowan Delivers Old Shool Value in Athens

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.

Leftover Salmon Couldn’t Be “Better” at The Variety Playhouse on Halloween

Leftover Salmon is one of my favorite bands. Period. They’re a (maybe the?) major influence on the creation of this site. You’ve probably heard Daniel Tosh ask, “have you ever seen anyone unhappy on a wave runner?” Well, I’d ask, “have you ever seen someone unhappy on Leftover Salmon?”

That being said, I always approach the traditional “jamband” holiday show skeptically. Whether New Years Eve, 420, or Halloween, the expectations for the evening rarely set the evening up for success. As someone that typically goes to shows alone and sober, I find myself wishing there was more music than party.

And man, was there ever a party at Eucilid Avenue on Halloween night. Before the show kicked off, I couldn’t help but notice the mix of fans. Salmon in Atlanta has a tendency to attract everything from high school kids looking to party to the mid-50’s, holding-on-to-their-hippy-roots guys… well, looking to party. The only difference on Halloween? About half of the freaks are dressed in costumes more elaborate than is available at your typical Party City. Among my favorites? Santa Clause and a dude in a full-on squirrel costume.

Due to trick-or-treating responsibilities – my girls dressed up as Strawberry Shortcake and a character from Candy Land – I wasn’t able to catch the opening act, Athens , Georgia’s own Packway Handle Band. I’ve heard good things and look forward to checking them out soon.

I arrived about 15-minutes before Leftover took the stage and had a chance to walk around and check out the aforementioned freaks. The venue was probably forty percent at this point, though it is always hard to estimate a Variety Playhouse crowd as a thousand folks are usually crammed into a one hundred square foot, fenced-off smoking area just outside the venue. I settled in on the floor on Drew Emmitt’s side and made note of the effects. The theme for the show is based on Sun Ra’s 1973 album and movie, “Space is the Place.”  Appropriately, there were stars displayed on the wall and trippy space scenes from popular culture and home video played on the wall throughout the show.

The band came out to the closing track off 2012’s Aquatic Hitchhiker, the Emmitt penned “Here Comes the Night,” an appropriate reference to the good things to come. Band favorite “Mama Boulet” followed, wore a bit of rust, and was one of the lone weak spots of the night. Things really picked up four songs in when banjoist Andy Thorn got the crowd jacked during a scorching “Bird Call.” Emmitt didn’t miss a beat with some stunning mandolin work before an extended jam that eventually ended in an entertaining banjo-bass duel, with Thorn and bassist Greg Garrison literally going note for note before the band joined back in to finish “Bird Call.”

It was during this part of the show when I overheard some guys chatting about how lucky we were to get to see Leftover Salmon, “in this venue with this many people” on Halloween. The other guy agreed, saying “they’re basically the Widespread Panic of Colorado.” I include this anecdote hesitantly as I know that no artist wants to be compared to another. On the other hand, that is probably one of the highest compliments someone that went to college in Georgia over the last twenty years could pay anyone. The crowd obviously agreed. A quick scan revealed a packed house by this point in the night.

The first set started to drive to a close with the new stand-out track “High Country,” quintessential Leftover Salmon released as the first of four songs promoted in partnership with Breckenridge Brewery. This was followed by the emergence of special guest Col. Bruce Hampton for his mainstays “Basically Frightened” and “Time is Free.” You never know what you’re going to get when the colonel gets on stage. My initial thought was that things were about to get weird. In the end, though, the band presented the material pretty straight-up and I think positively exposed some folks to some of Mr. Hampton’s catalog. Of note, Bruce had some amplification problems when starting his first few solos so the crowd was treated to some of guitarist Vince Herman’s best work of the evening while filling in.

Salmon returned to the stage with guests in tow for the second set, leading off with the evening’s title track, “Space is the Place.” Another Hampton tune preceded the blues and his standout, “Fixin’ to Die.” Guest Count M’Butu emerged from his drums to lend some vocals to the next song but Bruce excused himself midway through (apparently unexpectedly) to allow the band to finish up the show without him.

No offensive to the retired colonel, but the second set really took off from this point on. An explosive “Up on the Hill Where They Do The Boogie” earned Vince’s first “festival” call, his acknowledgement of the energy in the room. I’ve seen Salmon two other times in the previous 12-months or so and must say he was looking his best on this night, happy and healthy. His energy drove the band home.

“Gulf of Mexico” came before the standout of the night, the Thorn authored “Aquatic Hitchhiker.”

The closing stretch was highlighted by “Zombie Jamboree” and the brand-new “Two Highways”. “Zombie Jamboree” included a fantastic drum solo from brand-new member Alwyn Robinson. Even Count M’Butu took a break to enjoy the young man (he was born the year Salmon started), his talents, and energy. A friend leaned over during the solo and bemused, “well, I guess this answeres the question as to whether the new drummer is any good.”

Vince teased the crowd saying the set’s next-to-last song was motivated by a grave stone from a Georgia cemetery, but even Mrs. Reed would have considered the Rose Hill Cemetery inspired “Maud Only Knows” written by Ralph Roddenbery and Scott Mecredy a treat. Jam-vessel “Ask the Fish” closed the second set.

Always sweet-talking the crowd, Mr. Herman started the encore praising the evening’s fans and dedicating the encore, appropriately stating it couldn’t be “Better.” This version was enjoyable in spite of itself as the playing was loose and Vince’s trademark mumble let the crowd know he knew he’d lapsed some of the lyrics.

Click “here” to download the show from

Despite two small blips, the material throughout the night was pretty spot-on. Drew Emmitt’s talents are legendary, Vince Herman is the perfect front-man, Greg Garrison holds the distinction of being the only man cited in the first two show reviews, and Andy Thorn and Alwyn Robinson are prodigal on the level Drew and Vince were 20-years ago. As the recent material suggests, Thorn is really starting to hit his stride as a song writer. He looks as confident and happy on stage with Salmon as the late, great Mark Vann. He’s just a great fit.

All in all, this was probably my favorite Leftover Salmon show seen in person. It was a good mix of defining Salmon tunes, good time moments, chances a lot of bands just won’t take, a couple of well timed flubs, and legendary special guests. Leftover Salmon without guests is just dinner, not the banquet it should be.

Drew Emmitt told Star News Online that this will be the bands “last hard bus tour for a while.” He continued, “we’re pulling back to do more strategic type runs, still getting out there, but we’re kind of celebrating this as our last big tour for some time.” I read this quote the day of the show and was selfishly a bit disappointed at first. The more I’ve reflected upon it though its made me realize this is probably what the band needs. Personally, I feel like they’re putting out some of their finest material ever. I’d like to see that continue, so if shifting to a strategic tour schedule helps, well… I think that “couldn’t be better.”

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