Like many bands that ostensibly play bluegrass, the Steep Canyon Rangers are more apt to gather around a lone microphone to sing and play in hair-raising harmony as the band did in Newark, Ohio, on a gorgeous new track called “The Crystal Ship.”
Unlike many bands that ostensibly play bluegrass, the Steep Canyon Rangers are also apt to congregate on the drum riser where all six musicians can bang on the kit and the drummer may turn his sticks on mandolins, guitars, fiddles and banjos as the band did on “Simple Is Me,” which was sandwiched between “Let Me Out of this Town,” during a nearly 20-minute, homestretch segue.
The sextet—which occasionally expanded to a septet with the appearance of an auxiliary Ranger/roadie on electric guitar and accordion—accomplished all this and more during a blowout, two-hour concert that was slated to run 90 minutes and left the half-full house standing and cheering as loudly as an SRO sellout.
“We’ve been doing this a long time,” singer/guitarist Woody Platt said before the encore. “We don’t always have this much fun.”
The show was certainly lively, as the band members moved on and off stage to play in various incarnations with members moving up front to solo and backing off to give their mates their own star turns. Fiddler Nicky Sanders, meanwhile, could be seen two-stepping around the stage, bounding in and out of his bandmates’ personal space as they squared off on solos and calls-and-responses.
About the only time the players stood still is when they were singing in two-, three-, four-, five- or six-part harmony.
Mixing familiar fan-favorites with unrecorded songs, the Rangers took plenty of chances and received many warm rewards from the ecstatic crowd. There were shades of reds, blues, yellows and greens that shone through a tasteful amount of smoke, but the music was the star of the show.
The Rangers’ sound is as diverse as it is infectious. And there is something about the mix of their three lead singers—the smooth tenor of Platt, the higher range of Barrett Smith and the warm baritone of Graham Sharp—that pairs perfectly with their instrumental patchwork.
All the players are skilled instrumentalists, too. Platt plays acoustic guitar, Smith provides the upright bass and acoustic guitar, Sharp jumps between banjo, resonator banjo, electric guitar and harp, Sanders focuses on the fiddle, Mike Ashworth quadruples up on drums, acoustic and electric guitar and banjo and Michael Guggino handles mandolin and percussion.
“Auden’s Train” found the group playing traditional bluegrass on a 10-minute showcase for Sanders, who hopped up on monitors, jumped off the drum riser and scurried around the stage like a frightened rabbit as he mimicked a locomotive and quoted classical pieces—along with “Low Rider”—in his solo. “Be Still Moses” was straight-up gospel; “Stand and Deliver” rocked; “Take the Wheel” rolled; the new “Honey on My Tongue” was folksy; and jams recalled the Grateful Dead (a band that Sharp referenced in “Can’t Get Home”) playing “Dark Star” with Guggino’s mandolin subbing for more familiar guitar.
The Steep Canyon Rangers do play bluegrass. But that’s just part of their continuing, ever-expanding story.