Northern Lights modern bluegrass (Guthrie Center, 9/8/01)

Northern Lights modern bluegrass (Guthrie Center, 9/8/01)

By Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., September 9, 2001) - For a quarter century, eastern Massachusetts-based Northern Lights has been performing a modern version of Bill Monroe’s classic bluegrass, filtering Monroe’s high-lonesome sound, flashy mandolin and banjo licks and country twang through a contemporary prism.

It’s not an approach unique to Northern Lights, but what comes out is a unique reflection of the ensemble’s musicians and their backgrounds.

As seen at the Guthrie Center on Saturday night, in the final performance of the Guthrie’s regular season (there will be a few special events at the center in upcoming weeks), the longstanding core of the group is singer/mandolinist Taylor Armerding and acoustic guitarist/singer Bill Henry. Both are virtuosos on their instruments, steeped in bluegrass and other musical influences, and both are talented songwriters in their own right.

The new version of Northern Lights, which has undergone some personnel changes over the year, includes David Dick, formerly of Salamander Crossing, on banjo, acoustic guitar and vocals, and Chris Miles, on electric bass and vocals.

The presence of an electric bass in the lineup looked more odd than it sounded, and to Miles’s credit, he has found a way to integrate the non-bluegrass instrument into the ensemble’s sound.

It helps, of course, that Northern Lights takes a freewheeling, open-ended approach to bluegrass that doesn’t necessarily exclude musical styles and influences that came after the heyday of Flatt and Scruggs, or, for that matter, that came before.

Thus, a few numbers, including Armerding’s own “Average White Male,” evidenced a love of jazz-swing - sort of where Django Reinhardt or Stephane Grappelli and bluegrass meet. And Bill Henry’s own “Borealis Blues,” a very modern, jazzy instrumental with a dynamic approach borrowed from progressive rock music, was bookended by an arrangement of J.S. Bach’s “Bouree” for banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass.

Bluegrass according to Northern Lights also has room for the Beatles, as the bassist Miles led the group through a remarkably loyal version of George Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone” that preserved the original recording’s harmonies. The song was taken at double-speed, and it featured a dizzying sitar-like guitar solo by Henry.

A rendition of “Heartache Tonight” by the Eagles used a similar if more obvious strategy, speeding up the original and less of an apparent leap in that the Eagles themselves were strongly influenced by and came out of bluegrass and country music.

At times Northern Lights seemed to owe as much to the Eagles as to Bill Monroe. The band eschews the extensive instrumental soloing you find with a more traditional-minded bluegrass bands in favor of a more song-based approach. Theirs is the folk-, country- and rock-influenced bluegrass of Peter Rowan - the played several of his tunes, including “Rainmaker” and “Midnight Moonlight,” a bit of upbeat country-folk which featured a popping, jazzy bass solo by Miles - and several of their original songs could easily be country music hits, including Armerding’s “Red Red Rose” and Henry’s ballad “Lonely Is.”

Armerding was a genial, at times comic frontman - he noted how bluegrass is basically “tragic stories set to happy, upbeat melodies - and he boasts a voice tailor-made for singing bluegrass, one that gains power and character in the upper ranges. The group communicated with telepathic ease both instrumentally and through its three- and four-part vocal harmonies.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 10, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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