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Published: 2012/02/10
by Jed Nussbaum

Infamous Stringdusters with Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers, Top Hat, Missoula MT- 1/26

Photo by Matt Riley

Fact: the highly excitable music lovers of Missoula, Montana love their bluegrass. Strip it down to a bunch of fellas brave enough to take the stage wielding nothing but a handful of acoustic instruments and a passion for that high-lonesome sound, and you’re bound to find some foot-stompers on the dance floor. This is particularly the case if those fellas have the amount of chops and attitude that arrives in rampant abundance whenever the Infamous Stringdusters take the stage, which explains why the Top Hat was a veritable sawdust-and-moonshine hoedown when the ‘Dusters brought their Ski Tour to town one cold Thursday night this January.

Bay-area outfit Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers slid smoothly and subtly into their opening set, showcasing their classic sunny California country soul in a stripped down, four-piece format suitable to the bill they were sharing. Even without the presence of their drummer or typically amplified sound, the group packed plenty of dynamic punch that lured people away from the bar and rapidly converted strangers into fans. Lead guitarist Daren Ney proved to be one of the most understated talents to take the stage throughout the entire evening, delivering fleet-fingered lead lines that wove their way between verses and choruses throughout the set. Nicki’s husband, Tim Bluhm, took time away from his own rock ‘n’ roll powerhouse, the Mother Hips, to provide clever bass lines and harmonies, and propelled the duet “Stick With Me” into a crowd favorite early on in the set. Despite the wealth of formidable talent onstage, however, there’s no denying that Nicki Bluhm was the focal point for most audience members. Her voice spread over tunes such as “Keep it Loose” with the sweetness of a honeycomb, but she was more than willing to bring the house down with a convicted wail on tunes like “Before You Loved Me.”

Infamous took the stage with a high-spirited version of “You Can’t Stop the Changes” that transformed the previously subdued dance floor into a menagerie of bodies suspended in motion. “It might as well be Saturday night,” exclaimed bassist Travis Brook as he surveyed the crowd with a smile that rarely left his face the entire evening. The band hit an early high point by their third song, tearing through their instrumental masterpiece “Black Rock” with an outrageous display of interplay between dobro player Andy Hall and fiddler Jeremy Garrett that demonstrated the group’s love of letting two members riff off each other while the rest of the boys provided backup, amazed at each others’ talent.

The only disappointment of the evening was the departure of Mandolin player Jesse Cobb, a new development since the last time the Dusters came through Montana. In addition to the loss of a tremendously talented mandolin player, the group’s setlist was now bereft of some of Cobb’s brilliant compositions that were standards for most of their shows. Despite Cobb’s departure, however, the sound produced by the remaining five members was enough to fill the room and turn heads even at the far end of the venue. Hall brought the ballad “Masquerade” to a new level of elegance with an abundance of glossy dobro leads, and Flatpicking phenomenon Andy Falco got down and dirty on “The Hitchhiker” with a gypsy-sounding solo that started out slow and built into a landslide of perfectly placed notes. And even though Brook doesn’t have the occasion to show off his technical prowess as much as the others, his sheer exuberant energy was still enough to capture the limelight on multiple occasions. If Nicki Bluhm’s fans hadn’t gotten enough of her during her short opening set, the band brought her back onstage before the first set was over for a rendition of her song “Big Road,” meeting in the middle of each act’s genre tendancies for a string-powered country romp.

Infamous showed no signs of slowing down after setbreak, starting off strong with “Steam Powered Airplane.” They then moved into “Getting Down the Line,” highlighted by a fervent jam between Hall and Banjo player Chris Pandolfi; a cobweb of tasteful licks that built into a fever pitch that transformed the crowd – and the stage – into a sea of smiles. The set was chock full of Dusters standards like “In God’s Country,” Midnight Moonlight” and a particularly rip-roarin’ rendition of “100 Years From Now,” but was also highlighted by phenomenal covers of the Police’s “Walking on the Moon” and the traditional “Deep Elum Blues.” The set closer, “Rain,”was elevated by a colossal display of improvisational interplay between the fiddle and banjo before the group left the stage. They appeared once more to the persistent beckoning of a ravenous crowd and blew the doors off the Top Hat with “Long and Lonesome Day,” then bid farewell to an audience that had all but worn the rubber soles off their winter boots and were still left hollering for more.

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