Emmitt-Nershi Band, Top Hat, Missoula, MT – 2/4
Photo by Cody Hilleboe
In Missoula, MT, nothing treats cabin fever and bites back at the Hellgate canyon’s fierce winter winds like a bluegrass show. So when Emmitt-Nershi Band roll into town and provide a chance to see a couple of the most respected musicians in the scene in an intimate setting on a February night, folks leave the dry comfort of their home en masse. The Top Hat was already filling up fast by the time I got there shortly after 10, with a line of starving bluegrass fiends waiting to get through the front door. The Top Hat’s recent decision to remove the waist-high barrier that separated the dance floor from the rest of the bar was made not a moment too soon, as the unwashed winter masses came flooding in to occupy any space they could find to shake their legs.
Inside, the dance floor was filling up fast while local favorites Lil’ Smokies warmed things up in a hurry. The six piece string band pulled off one of the most solid sets I’d seen them perform in a long time, including a crowd pleasing rendition of Hank Williams III’s “Smoke and Wine,” and a brilliant version of Bela Fleck’s “Lochs of Dread” that placed extra emphasis on the fluid lead lines of their dobro player.
When Emmitt-Nershi Band took the stage, however, it quickly became clear what had brought all these people out. The floor in front of the stage was packed in no time, as the band launched into a version of String Cheese Incident’s “Black Clouds” that a good portion of the audience knew all the words to. They quickly followed up with a white-hot version of Drew Emmitt’s “Gold Hill Line,” before taking a quick break while the soundman made some adjustments to combat feedback issues. The band dealt with the inconvenience graciously, and continued throughout the night with songs from both performers’ past projects as well as many of the tracks off Emmitt Nershi Band’s 2009 album, New Country Blues.
The caliber of musicianship in the Emmitt-Nershi Band comes as no surprise. Emmitt’s deft mandolin playing was proudly on display, building solos with the right amount of tension and focus before unleashing a hailstorm of notes with a manic intensity that had the crowd howling for more. I’ve never been a big fan of Bill Nershi, a statement many consider sacrilege, but his particular style of playing in SCI has never really drawn me in. The undistilled flatpicking genius Nershi showcases with Emmitt-Nershi Band, however, converted me in a hurry. This is clearly Nershi doing what he does best, blazing across the strings with nary a second thought.
What really captured my attention, though, was the precision and imagination of banjo player Andy Thorn. Thorn’s left hand seemed to be on a continuous search up and down the neck for the perfect notes, while his fingerpicking rarely ceased its feverish pace, causing me to wonder if maybe a name change for the band wasn’t in order. The highlights of the show often came when all three lead players would build off each other, interweaving their separate lines while the band’s new bassist Johnny Grubb held down a formidable lower end presence.
The band powered through a long set of crowd pleasers, hardly coming up for air between the time they started and when the bar started ushering people out the door. Nershi brought a smile to SCI fans’ faces with a version of “Johnny Cash,” and near the end of the show Emmitt took the audience through Leftover Salmon’s “Out in the Woods.” No song sent me searching for a dance partner and an unclaimed spot on the dance floor, however, like “New Country Blues.” Or maybe it was the whiskey. Whatever it was, I wasn’t the only one affected by it. The band took time after they finished to mingle with the audience before packing up their gear, and the crowd headed back out in the cold, no doubt already anticipating their next chance to shake off their cabin fever.