Woody Platt joked the Steep Canyon Rangers were glad to be free of the “dead weight” of their sometimes-touring partner Steve Martin toward the end of the American Originals concert at Cincinnati’s Music Hall Sunday afternoon.
“Don’t tell him we said that,” Platt deadpanned to Cincinnati Pops conductor John Morris Russell before performing Irving Berlin’s “Remember,” a tune Martin suggested for the bluegrass/classical paring and one Maestro Russell hadn’t before heard.
It was one of three showcase tunes the Rangers – the “Steeps,” Russell called them – performed and one of only two originals in the concert, which also featured Rhiannon Giddens (four numbers), Pokey LaFarge (four) and tap dancer Robyn Watson, who accompanied Giddens and dancedn alone with the symphony on “The Charleston.”
The thrice-in-a-lifetime concert was the third in a series of Veterans Day-weekend shows by the all-star slate and also served as a recording session for the forthcoming American Originals Vol. 2 LP, which will be released in 2018..
Given the timing of the show, the 19-song setlist – the all-hands-on-deck finale, “I Ain’t Got Nobody” was performed twice in radically different arrangements – focused on the 1910s and ‘20s and included songs such as W.C. Handy’s “The Memphis Blues” by LaFarge, a world-premiere performance of Peter Boyer’s “In the Cause of the Free” paired with “God Bless America” by the orchestra alone and Bessie Smith’s “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle” by Giddens.
The sublime musical offerings benefitted from the pristine sound of the vintage-1878 and newly renovated Music Hall, where even the silence sounded perfect.
After an overture in the form of “Hey There! (Hi! There!),” the Rangers harmonized on “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm?” and LaFarge crooned “Prairie Lullaby,” setting the table for Giddens, barefoot in a floor-length skirt and with red streaks of hair peaking out of her hat, who brought down the house with “I’m Just Wild About Harry” and the aforementioned “Fiddle.”
The former Carolina Chocolate Drop and recent Genius Grant recipient has enough talent for six people and is blessed with an expressive, operatic voice that belts and coos and cries and howls with equal intensity. She talked about the importance of virtually unknown, early-20th-century African-American composers and sang their songs with enough gusto to make people go looking for the likes of “Harry” songwriter Eubie Blake.
LaFarge – “Poke,” Russell called him – yodeled and channeled an admixture of Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie. Dressed in oversized, rolled-up blue jeans, he joked about waking up in time for dinner on Saturday and being amazed he could sing at 2 p.m. on a Sunday before proving he could on his version of Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
The Rangers strolled onstage and gathered around a single mic to provide gentle harmonies on LaFarge’s rendition of “Night Owl,” a dreamy, wee-small-hours number that – like nearly every tune played Sunday afternoon – benefitted from the symphony’s lush, tasteful accompaniment.
The brightest star of the show, Giddens sang her second-half spots, “Cocoanut Grove Jazz” and “Swing Along,” before ceding the stage to Russell and his charges, who, for two hours over two sets struck a perfect balance with the headliners, providing accompaniment that always sounded essential and never was intrusive. When they performed on their own – such as on a swinging rendition of “Over There” – they added welcome oomph to numbers that can be cliché in the care of lesser arrangers and musicians and thus set the table for the “Steeps” to return for their signature tune, “Auden’s Train,” sans symphony.
With sharp, three-part harmony and expert musicianship, this number is a chance for fiddler Nicky Sanders to take the spotlight, aping a train whistle with his instrument, two-stepping around his bandmates and tossing in snippets of War’s “Low Rider” as he and the band brought the main show to a rousing conclusion.
By the time everyone gathered onstage for a singalong “Nobody” – which David Lee Roth did not write, Russell reminded the crowd while coaching them on their lines – the afternoon concert was already perfection. The joy that flowed between performers and audience on both renditions of the tune – the second serving as the encore – only sweetened the pot and left concertgoers anxiously awaiting next year’s album release.