Bruce Molsky: From Beacon to Brooklyn

Bruce MolskyLots of live music, a few highs and a couple of rough spots defined this past week. Before I get on topic, I want to mention a book I found at the local library, where ink and paper still give me a thrill. Whispering Pines by Jason Schneider is subtitled ‘The Northern Roots of American Music…From Hank Snow to The Band’. Just about a third of the way through, I can already tell you its a great read about the Canadian musical heritage. Paul Cantin reviewed it for No Depression a few years ago and it’s probably still up online if you want to check it out.

On a Saturday afternoon in the last weekend of October, about a dozen of us sat inside a small cold room with cinderblock walls. In the basement of the local bowling alley here in the Hudson Valley, it serves as the home of the Beacon Music Factory. A great facility where both kids and adults can come to take lessons and enjoy the benefits of many events and programs. These type of places are important community centers, especially during an era where art and music programs are too often stripped out of the budgets of local public school systems.

We’d come on this particular day to hear folklorist and master musician Bruce Molsky talk a little about Appalachian fiddle and banjo music from the early 20th century. He held a fiddle workshop earlier that morning, but since I only fiddle around with a guitar, dulcimer and banjo, it was this second session that was more to my interest.

Sitting in a semi-circle around Bruce, with fiddle and banjos at his feet, he took us through the styles of mountain music from Virginia and North Carolina, over to Eastern Kentucky and down to the plains of Texas. His playing and singing are extraordinary, and his knowledge of the people and places where this music comes from is absolutely staggering.

Should you not be familiar with him, I can count at least a dozen albums available featuring both his solo work and with various groups. A great entry point would be the 2013 release of If It Ain’t Here When I Get Back, which is described as “an aural autobiography, paying tribute to the people he has lived his musical life with over the past 45 years, and incorporating the sounds of his travels”. Here’s a video from 2012 that I really like.

The following day I got to cross over the East River for the first time and set foot in the urban hills of downtown Brooklyn. It was the Third Annual Brooklyn Bluegrass Bash at The Bell House, a benefit concert series that helps raise money for the restoration of the Old First Reformed Church. Established by Peter Stuyvesant in 1654, it serves as a homeless shelter, a day-care facility, and a magnificent performance space for local arts groups.

Why this particular borough of the city has become the center for roots music of all sorts, I can’t really explain. But the pool of talented musicians who have settled down and made their homes here is exceptional, and they’ve developed a strong and vibrant community. Whether it’s old-time traditional, bluegrass, blues or more contemporary excursions, the audience and players are mostly of a younger generation, and they easily mix with those of us wih a touch of grey.

On this day we got to hear a wide range of sets of acoustic music from a diverse group…let me give you the list: David Bromberg with Mark Cosgrove, Darol Anger, Joe K. Walsh and Grant Gordy, Haas/Kowert/Tice, the Calamity Janes, Kristen Andreassen and Cricket Tell The Weather…love that band and their name. The emcee was actor Peter Sarsgaard, another neighborhood local. Closing the show was Bruce Molsky once again on fiddle and vocals, collaborating with legendary banjo picker Tony Trischka and guitarist-singer Michael Daves. This was the second time I’ve gotten to see this trio play, as they were the afternoon headliner at this summer’s American Roots Music Festival at the Caramoor Center for Music and Performing Arts.

Just to put an exclamation point on the day, Daves called out everyone to join a finale to end all finales. Imagine three bass players, three fiddlers, two each on mandolin and banjo, and five or six guitarists all on one stage. And it seemed like everybody took a turn vocalizing at the mic. I left feeling that I got to cross that old river more often.

Here to close it out this week is two-thirds of that trio…Michael and Tony…at this this year’s FreshGrass festival.