John Cowan Band, Neighborhood Theatre, Charlotte, NC- 9/1
John Cowan has some pretty big shoes to fill: his own. After all, here is a guy who has been doing everything from country to bluegrass, blues to soul and gospel to rock in roll for over thirty years and doing it well. He has a voice like no other, he has been a driving force in helping to open country and bluegrass and fusing together all kids of music into one sound and bringing them to an ever-widening audience, and September 1st at the Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte, NC, he did not disappoint.
He took the stage with his seasoned band and much to my surprise, they took their seats. Here I was expecting a rock and roll-grass show, and the star of the night sits down. Well it didn’t take long to see that while he may prefer to give his knees a rest, his fingers, his voice, and of course his band, were there to more than make up the difference.
Sharing the stage with John that night was Jeff Autry on guitar, who could easily have kept up with Larry Keel, Bryan Sutton or Tony Rice in just about any situation. On banjo, he had Tony Wray, a man who couldn’t have limited his playing even if he wanted to, taking bluegrass into jazz and back as smoothly as one can imagine being done on the banjo. Lastly, he had Shad Cobb up there, a doctor on his instrument, playing the fiddle. Every one of these guys was great, but you simply don’t see musicians like Shad Cobb every day, or even every year. At one point Shad and John did a duet that was only vocal and fiddle. It was dedicated to John’s grandfather who had been a farmer and had fought the elements like his grandfather’s father and grandfather before him. He said that it was specifically about a tornado that had finally forced the closure of the family farm. John was the farmer and Shad was the tornado. While this may be a hard thing to describe, Shad and his instrument truly became the tornado: swirling energy, spinning uncontrollably and at times hurling debris in his path. One could close his eyes and see this epic battle between a defenseless man battling for his life and land against the forces of nature knowing that there is nothing he can do but pray and hope for the best. It somehow conjured images of “Great Gig in the Sky” by Pink Floyd. On Dark Side of the Moon, you hear that passionate voice battling the tornado, and here was that tornado personified in four strings and one killer player.
The band moved seamlessly through genres throughout the course of the night. They played bluegrass standards, country ballads and New Grass Revival tunes. They did a cappella gospel pieces, jazz tunes and 70’s covers. They did straight up hoe-down’s and gritty blues numbers. One particular highlight of the night came introduced as an old British folk song. They then proceeded to play “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin. The boys definitely did their own take on it, as Cowan, well into his fifties and currently battling bronchitis, nailed every high note in the song.
Here was a guy who paved the way for some many of today’s great bands. Bands like Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident would have been hard pressed to define their sound had they not had John Cowan’s example to follow. Yet here he was on stage still doing his thing and still pushing the envelope, still refusing to follow rules or accept that music can be defined or limited by genres or labels. John Cowan has been doing this for a lifetime and he still clearly has something to say. All I can say is that as long as he is saying it, I’ll be right there to listen.