Cornmeal, The Stones Throw, Eau Claire, WI- 3/31
It’s always a great feeling to wake up in the morning knowing that you’re going to see live music that night. There’s a certain energy in each and every step and it seems that no matter what you have to do, it’s all just a preamble to the night’s festivities. Driving to the show, taking the back roads, taking your time, is often a meditative experience when expectations begin to build and the energy begins to overwhelm, even intoxicate, until all that remains is the destination and the thoughts of what is about to come. There’s really no greater high in the world than that which comes as a result of experiencing live music, as no matter how far one must travel, the journey is almost always worth the reward. This was to be only my fifth time seeing Cornmeal and the word on the street was that their sound had grown leaps and bounds since my last encounter.
After six years and over 175 shows, playing big name festivals and sharing the stage with such big name acts as the David Grisman Quintet, John Hartford, Yonder Mountain String Band, Little Feat, Leftover Salmon among others, Cornmeal is beginning to carve out their own niche in the newgrass/psychedelegrass genre. Indeed, when Cornmeal came to the Stones Throw in Eau Claire this past weekend, this “new sound” is exactly what the people in attendance expected to hear. With an excellent rendition of the Beatles “Rain” (a track which was originally released as the B-side to “Paperback Writer” in 1966) to start out the night, Cornmeal made it clear that the night’s music was going to be far from traditional bluegrass.
“Trimming the Fat,” a Cornmeal original instrumental and the fourth song of the night, is where the evening truly began in terms of musical fullness and intensity. The shredding fiddle work of Ally Kral and the power picking of banjo player Wavy Dave Burlingame brought this piece alive as they danced in and around each other’s respective phrases. Here the crowd truly became engaged, responding appropriately with a thunderous collective holler.
Ally’s fiddle chops, deeply rooted in rock and blues, takes the band to a new level, adding a distinctive layer to the thick improvisation. Holding down the rhythm and keeping the vehicle between the lines, so to speak, is the tight and powerful rhythm section comprised of upright bassist Chris Gangi and drummer JP Nowak. The intelligent guitar work of Kris Nowak and the mean banjo playing of Wavy Dave add just the right flair to the group as they pass solos around the stage as though they were an extension of the same mind.
At one point, right in the middle of the traditional song, “Molly and Tenenbrooks,” Ally began playing the lead part to Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold.” Within the first two bars of her solo the rest of the band hopped on board for a full rendition of the tune in full rock n’ roll fashion. In speaking with the group backstage during the set break, they admitted that they were as surprised as their audience when they started playing the song, saying that it was in fact the first time that they had ever attempted it in a live, or any other context.
A powerful second set was punctuated by Ally’s psychedelic fiddle work on the Cornmeal original, “The Road,” a stellar rendition of Paul Simon’s “Slip Sliding Away,” and a show-stopping version of their original “Hillbilly Ride.” Coming out one last time at the adamant behest of the chanting crowd, Cornmeal dove into the Doobie Brothers “Long Train Running,” nailing everything from the screaming solo (compliments of Ally) to the dynamic four-part harmony. Needless to say, it was truly a great night of music and a pleasure to see another great act in the Eau Claire region in a venue that has quickly gained renown in the northern Midwest for its sound system, stellar lighting and of course, its booking.