Less traditional than the Travelin’ McCourys but more so than the Punch Brothers, the Steep Canyon Rangers infuse their brand of bluegrass with elements of jamband, folk, blues and jazz to create an unique amalgam bouyed by seamless vocals as they sing in various combinations of two to five depending on the song.
At Newark’s intimate Midland Theatre, Graham Sharp (banjo, guitar, harmonica), Nicky Sanders (fiddle), Woody Platt (guitar), Mike Guggino (mandolin, mandola), Mike Ashworth (drums, guitar) and Barrett Smith (double bass) spent two generous hours running through tracks new and old in a concert that ended with an enthusiastic standing ovation that caused Platt to suggest we all follow them to the next gig in Chicago.
The sextet offered up its terrific new album Out in the Open, though not in sequence, and fans were already familiar enough with the 7-day-old LP to shout out a request for “Shenandoah Valley.” It was granted and found Ashworth whistling along on the carefree number as the band gathered at the front of the stage to harmonize.
”The best requests are ones we know,” Platt said before the performance.
Platt, Sharp and Ashworth followed with the gorgeous “Going Midwest,” a song so hushed the audience’s applause was delayed for a nanosecond. Ditto their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” when the trio was joined by Guggino.
Sharp – “Mr. Steep Canyon Ranger,” Platt called him – managed to play two harmonicas and banjo while singing harmony vocals on the new record’s title track.
Digging deeper in to their songbook, the Rangers bordered on raucous with “Stand and Deliver,” got personal on “Tell the Ones I Love” and embodied worked-to-the-bone coal miners on the tender “Call the Captain,” another request.
Their dress ranged from business casual (Sharp) to suit and tie (Guggino). Despite the nearly formal wear, the Rangers were nevertheless playful as they moved about the Midland’s large stage, stepped in and out of the spotlight and occasionally hopped up on Ashworth’s drum riser. Sanders, in particular, must shed several pounds per show as he does the do-si-do around his smiling bandmates.
The Rangers ended the show as they always do with the nearly out-of-control Sanders showcase “Auden’s Train.” As his mates stood on the lip of the stage, Sanders shuttled around like a madcap fiddler, quoting classical pieces, “Norwegian Wood” and “Low Rider” and engaging in a call-and-response with drummer Ashworth and tapping the cymbals with his bow.
It’s a constant.
But it never gets old.