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Published: 2011/02/21
by Steve Brienza

Cornmeal / Greensky Bluegrass, Sullivan Hall, NYC – 2/10

Photos by Vernon Webb

For me, buying tickets in advance is like a double-edged sword. On the one side, I know my spot in the venue is secure but on the other side I have to deal with the anticipation that continually builds up until show time. First there were weeks, and then days in the way of me getting to see two juggernauts of the bluegrass scene, Greensky Bluegrass and Cornmeal, storm into my hometown and tear the roof off of Sullivan Hall. With the winter that New York City was going through I also had to pray that Mother Nature didn’t rain (rather snow) on my parade.

I made it to the show without exploding from excitement and from the moment I found a parking spot right on Sullivan Street, on my first pass through the neighborhood, I knew this night was going to be awesome. The place was already packed with young and older folks alike; the buzz about this show had hit all corners of the east coast and also enticed a few to come from the respective Midwest hometowns of each main act. As I made my way to the front of the venue and secured my spot upfront, the Union Street Preservation Society was taking the stage to start the night off. With more of an old-time/folk feel to their tunes, they set the stage and surely warmed up the crowd. Featuring acoustic guitar and bass, mandolin, fiddle and dobro, the Union Street Preservation Society laid down very original and appealing versions of “Corrina, Corrina,” “House of The Rising Sun” and “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”.

The bluegrass faithful laid down their love on Greensky Bluegrass as they took the stage to a rousing ovation. Appropriately enough, as if delivering a sermon the group dove right into a wicked version of “Reverend” and in this church there were plenty of us “drinking with the reverend.” Anders Beck gets the dobro really moaning deep when they play this tune and he would continue to shine all night long. “Stop That Train” had a bit of a sing along feel to it, as most in attendance were familiar with the Peter Tosh song. On “All Four,” Paul Hoffman somehow makes a song about nothing going right sound so beautiful with such a sweet voice. There was excessive playing on “All Four” but there was plenty of fine instrumentation as the song opened up and the band explored the space in-between. On top of Dave Bruzza’s folky sounding walk up on guitar, Mike Devol and Paul Hoffman started off lightly singing the intro to “Jaywalking”; the tune, as the band explained was penned on the fourth of July. As the rest of the guys joined in the groove established had the crowd really moving. If it weren’t for the fact that Cornmeal was waiting backstage to share in the evenings festivities I would have loved for Greensky Bluegrass to play another set, or even two.

One of the first things that you will notice about Cornmeal is how much fun fiddle player Allie Kral seems to be having; this couldn’t be more apparent during the in your face version of “Girl With Short Brown Hair” that the band delivered right off the bat. With her bunny hopping and all, Allie destroyed that fiddle while JP Nowak hammered away at the set with some intense cymbal work. The song opened up a bit and got rather psychedelic as many of their non-traditionalist songs tend to do. What can you say about Kris Nowak on guitar… he definitely was on fire! The tones he can get from his pedal setup allows him manipulate his acoustic guitar and play spaced out lines, lightning fast riffs or traditional bluegrass flat picking; needless to say, he is extremely versatile. With a soft flowing swing to start the song off, “Wasting Time” followed. Although he seemed to be a bit low in the mix, Wavy Dave Burlingame made up for it with a serious banjo solo that built up intensity and then quickly dropped off into a beautiful fiddle part by Allie. Going right into “Shake A Leg” it was apparent that Cornmeal intended to make a statement and temporarily turn Manhattan into “New Grass City.” There wasn’t a leg standing still in the place nor a smile on every face as this hoedown ensued. The entire band was on point and having just as much fun as the crowd, and it was clear that the energy was being thrown from one entity to the other. Later in the set the band busted out “On the Road” which contains every element of a truly great song and epitomizes what the scene is all about musically. With an opening groove that leads into a sweet serenade by Allie and her fiddle, JP builds things up on drums and invites the band into the main groove. The song opens up as Wavy Dave lays down a nasty banjo riff as he feeds off the consistent drumming. At this point the song got spacey and dark all at the same time with distorted fiddle and guitar filling the space around the bass and drums. The song was tight and the musicianship was top notch for what seemed to be nearly 20 minuets. The always fun and very danceable “Hillbilly Ride” closed out Cornmeal’s set.

As we all hoped would be the case, Greensky Bluegrass was invited up to share the stage to close out the night. With both bands on stage there were fine string instruments abound and brilliantly talented players holding them. Banjo headstocks were nearly knocking heads with guitars and Allie Krals fiddle bow was almost striking Paul Hoffman’s head, but there were gleaming faces and an aura of love and appreciation floating above the stage. Somehow there was room, musically speaking, for everyone to showcase a little bit of what they bring to the table. During “White Freight Liner Blues” the guitar/ banjo picking and dobro slides would make an amateur player hang up their instrument as reaching the level of proficiency exhibited on stage is no easy task. The Peter Rowan tune “Midnight Moonlight” showcased the natural chemistry that Allie Kral and Paul Hoffman share while playing music together; they each had their share of playing in the spotlight and also playing support. More importantly though is the fact that everyone showcased how much fun they were having playing together and I am sure it has been wonderful little tour the two bands have strung together. The tribute to Peter Rowan closed out the night and appropriately enough sent us all out on our way home under the crisp clear New York City “Midnight Moonlight.”

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