Photo Ben Flimlaid (@goseeashowphoto)
Imagine one-hundred proof blended aged whiskey that is composed of masterfully distilled whiskey from various traditions. It would be a one of a kind sipping experience. The flavor would result in a complex blend of spirits and would be challenging to describe. Filled with surprise after surprise as it hits the taste buds. This is what it is like to see The Sam Grisman Project. Each member has unique qualities and collectively they are full of complexity and surprise.
Music is a language, but music is not one language. Great musicians can speak volumes through their instruments. The project’s show at The Grey Eagle showcased their rich and dense vocabulary from a bevy of musical languages and traditions. They are musical polyglots and they speak in tongues. It is surprising to see a group that has been performing publicly together less than a year have so much to say, and show little signs of adolescence. They’ve played Asheville’s Grey Eagle twice in a year, also setting the tone that they are road warriors.
Each member is distinct vocally and their background vocals and harmonies all blend smoothly together. Melody is paramount in their playing and with Sam Grisman on bass and Chris J. English on drums you have a consistent groove that creates a canvas for melody to shine through. English also contributes original compositions “We Share As One” and “We Have a Right to Know.” Guitarist Aaron Lipp is a bluegrass lick factory, generating lick after lick, but can just easily play chord based soloing.
It isn’t wrong to expect to hear Dawg and Garcia music from the SG Project, but their show is much more. Throughout the evening at The Grey Eagle they seamlessly switched from electric music to acoustic bluegrass, but to describe or categorize them in terms of genre feels wrong. It is a complex sound, and they are doing well by not limiting their performance to songs we are all familiar with. They do the standards with excellence and enthusiasm and the crowd ate it up. However, bringing in their own originals was a real treat and what I hope they can continue to cultivate. Ric Robertson’s (guitar, keys, mandolin) original “Sycamore Hill” is a good example. Robertson is well pleasing vocally and will make you want to find Sycamore Hill and move there.
The Grey Eagle show felt even more special with the added musicianship of Bennet Sullivan (pedal steel and banjo) and Wyatt Ellis (mandolin). One of the most beautiful stringed instruments ever to be created is the pedal steel. With Sullivan on steel they were able to go honky-tonk on John Hartford’s “No End of Love” and Doc Watson’s “Red Rocking Chair.” However, Bennett used the steel in contexts other than twang and it added one more layer of robust texture. Now, what is better than one mandolin? Two mandolins! Young Wyatt Ellis joined for both acoustic sets and played twin mandolin with Robertson. An absolute treat.
The Sam Grisman Project is not to be missed. They are versatile, full of soul and spirit, and are guaranteed to inspire you and make you smile. Buy a ticket and go see them.