Bluegrass chops on full display
You know, I’m a big-time rock critic used to being ringside at the big shows, interviewing the big stars, riding in the big limousines and fending off the big-city groupies who throw themselves at my feet and byline. My week can be long and hectic.
So it’s always nice to take a break from the prime-time madness and indulge in a mellow Saturday night once in a while. Which I did last weekend, going down to Dick’s Den to enjoy some homegrown down-home sounds courtesy of Fox ’n’ Hounds, one of several promising bluegrass-y bands playing around town.
This particularly capable outfit is led by Steven Fox, whom most of you know as the mutton-chopped stand-up bassist for the Spikedrivers, that most lively of country-folk-’cana-esque moonshiners. With his Hounds, we see a whole ’nother side of the man: mandolin!
To go from one of the biggest stringed instruments to just about the littlest, one would think, would take a bit of getting used to. But ol’ Foxy proved his moxy and really slammed out some pinging solos. With a voice that’s all yowl all the time, Fox sure seems to have the mythical Squirrel Puke Holler high-and-lonesome tone down but good.
Nicely complementing him was his rhythm guitarist, Aaron Snyder, vocally a clear mountain stream without a hint of mineral pollution. His singing is a strength Fox ’n’ Hounds would be wise to develop, my suggestion being that Fox sing the murder ballads and Snyder the cheatin’ and a-hurtin’ songs.
The third very pleasant surprise of the night was guitarist Adam Schlenker’s super-picker leads on breaks between, beneath and around Fox and Snyder’s verses. He can practically out-Tony Tony Rice, the king of straight-ahead, jazz-inflected bluegrass lead guitar.
Rounding out the Hounds were shy violinist Ammon Bowen and Chris Stevens, a dependable thumper on stand-up bass who was making his debut with the band.
Fox ’n’ Hounds came storming out of the gate Saturday night with a fat handful of fast numbers. Music without drums, that’s bluegrass. But weak it wasn’t.
The furies flew out of Fox’s mandolin during his solos, from the git-go. When Schlenker’s turn came, he was knockin’ the crows out of the sky. I’ve seen a few of the other bluegrass bands in town, and Schlenker may the best local picker, his leads sidewinding up the frets until scoring a direct hit on a certain note up high and then returning back down to the root note.
While Stevens supplied the steady pulse, it was Fox himself driving the band, his mandolin the little engine that could. When things eased up—like for a pair of John Hartford songs, “Holding” and “Wrong Road”—the five proved their balladic legs were quite capable of supporting the slower tunes for a welcome change of pace.
Then they did an instrumental that stuck in my head like toilet paper on a shoe: “Canis Lupus,” which is Latin for “The Wolf.” It was written by an old cohort of Fox’s some time ago. If memory serves, it is minor chord upon minor chord, with an after burn of brooding the likes of which I don’t need in my life right now.
But there it was, the song that wouldn’t go away. “The Wolf,” you bastard, your melody’s got me hamstrung. You’ve ruined my life. Now I must hear it again.
The lads then shifted back into breakneck, making for the state line with the Dukes of Hazzard following ’em. Fox started singing, then led his squadron of high-flyin’ bluegrass boys for an extended round of soloing involving himself, Schlenker and Bowen.
Mellow? What am I talking about? This shit was exciting! Bill Monroe, disliker of all things modern, was probably up in heaven nodding his head approvingly as these urban upstarts cranked up the old jalopy called bluegrass.
Look out, Yonder Mountain, Old Crow and David Grisman. There’s a new boy in town with chops to match the ones growing out of his face ZZ Top-style—the band’s only gimmick, if you can call it that, and I don’t.