Strength In Numbers

The Lonesome Pine Specials Concert

By Jean Metcalfe

If the Silicon Valley people ever develop a computer that can measure best instead of just most, Strength In Numbers will be a shoo-in for a spot in Guinness' famous book. But we don't need a machine or a book to tell us that the five acoustic musicians who comprise the group are the best on their respective instruments. A seat in the Bomhard Theater at the Kentucky Center for the Arts on August 10, 1989 would be sufficient.

Sam Bush on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Bela Fleck on banjo, Edgar Meyer on bass and Mark O'Connor on violin provided for their audience a dazzling display of what they can do collectively as well as individually. And what they can do is play the bejabbers out of those instruments.

Although the members of Strength In Numbers have played together in various combinations on albums, at festivals and such for more than ten years, it was just a little over two years ago that they first played together as a band. That was in the summer of 1987 at a festival in Telluride, Colorado. One year later at Telluride '88 they began to write. In January they rehearsed for a mere five days and put the results on an album in seven days. That album is called The Telluride Sessions.

Douglas is said to have previously summed the group up as "a bunch of us who always wanted to play together but never can find the time or place."

The individual credits that have accrued to the five talented musicians are astounding. In 1971 Bush was a founding member of the exciting foursome New Grass Revival. Bush had won the National Old Time fiddlers Contest three times prior to joining Louisville-based Bluegrass Alliance in 1970. He seems to pop up everywhere. I wonder if he ever sleeps.

Douglas became a member of the legendary progressive bluegrass band Country Gentlemen at the age of 16. Before going on his own in 1985, Douglas worked with J. D. Crowe, David Grisman and The Whites. Frets magazine named him best on his instrument five years in a row, earning him a spot in their Gallery of Greats. Oh, yes, he won a Grammy in 1983 for best Country Instrumental Performance. He has five albums to his credit as well.

Fleck is also a member of Frets magazine's Gallery of Greats. Drive, his latest solo album (he has six of them), earned Fleck a Grammy nomination; he has two such nominations. Fleck joined New Grass Revival in 1981.

At the age of 21, Meyer won the first international bass competition held in the United States. Other awards include Best Double Bassist in the jazz/pop category of Frets magazine's readers' poll for the last two years. Meyer has three highly acclaimed solo albums to his credit.

O'Connor is a six-time winner of the Frets poll and a member of their Gallery of Greats. He has appeared on three albums as a member of The David Grisman Quintet and one as a member of the Dixie Dregs. In 1988, as a sideman, he appeared on the albums of Michael Brecker, Amy Grant and Randy Travis, all Grammy award winners. O'Connor has recorded nine solo albums, six for Rounder and three for Warner Bros.

Although at this Lonesome Pine Specials concert the crane camera was directly in my line of vision, the stage was clearly visible and the camera didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the evening. My husband, however, did allow as how he wished we were sitting on the other side of the theater.

I was a bit surprised to note that the house was not quite full at show time, but a later check indicated that there were few empty seats.

After a brief introduction by Dick Van Kleeck, Artistic Director and Producer of the Specials, the five musicians came onstage, casually dressed and began to tune up. They kicked off the show with a fancy instrumental number and Sam Bush, who is the obvious though unofficial leader of the group, was exhibiting his usual enthusiastic stage presence. (Several times through the evening I thought Sam's familiar open-mouthed expression was more fixed than real, but I do not intend this in a negative way. He seems to turn up everywhere and was probably deservedly tired. Still, he jumped around the stage and put a lot of energy into his playing the entire evening.)

It wasn't long before I noticed bassist Meyer's sensual movements as he caressed his acoustic bass. He did not ease up and I confess I was frequently distracted by them, but perhaps that was his intention. Meyer's facial expression was, I believe, also intended to be sensual, but I found it to be one more of pain than of passion. His outstanding talent came through loud and clear that evening, however and more than covered that one minor "sin."

The other three gentlemen maintained a low profile insofar as stage presence was concerned.

After a second great number, Bush stepped to the microphone and said, "Good evening, music lovers. It's so nice to see you. We of course have a different name since we were last here. We're going to be doing the entire album from the Master Series." He said they would do another song or two, one of which was "Patty On the Turnpike," on which Sam promised that "everybody will get to take a turn on this one." The numbers, he said, were to warm them up before they got into the album numbers.

Meyer and Fleck did a duet which they called "Duet." And a great duet it was. Meyer coaxed strange and wondrous sounds from his bass during the number. There were animal-like growlings and sounds akin to the distant yelping of wolves and at times the two instruments seemed to be engaging in a mating ritual. At song's end my husband said of Meyer, "He gets more sound out of that old bass than anyone I've ever heard play."

Prompted to "tell them about the record," Meyer said, "So ... we made a record." (The patter was enjoyed by everyone. You had to be there to truly enjoy the personalities involved as they interacted with each other.) Meyer went on to say that the album had ten tunes on it and that they had cut it in January. The tunes, he continued, were "all written by some combination of two of us."

At that point one of the gentlemen said, "This band has five leaders, five visions and five opinions.

From the album, the group performed "Future Man," which was written by O'Connor and Douglas. Of the tune, Meyer said, "I found out today that the record company saw fit to put that on the sampler," adding gleefully, "but there was a mistake on the album so I feel better."

Next up was "Pink Flamingos," a Bush/Meyer collaboration, of which they said, "It's a little bit weird, but we're a little bit weird."

John Wayne and Walter Brennan inspired Bush and Douglas to write a number called "Duke and Cookie," the names of characters played by Wayne and Brennan in the movie "Red River." Bush did a funny imitation of Brennan in introducing the song. (Sorry, fellas, if I missed or messed up some of the song titles. I tried to buy your album after the performance but alas no tapes were available there.)

The guys were having a good time onstage and the patter continued to be good-natured and funny. Meyer, in introducing a tune he and O'Connor had written and which they said had been arranged for three strings, mentioned that Bush was a pretty good "bower." When he inadvertently called the song "One Winter's Song" instead of "One Winter's Night,"the usually-quiet Fleck quipped, "I think when he said 'bowers' he meant 'bozos."'. There was a good bit of levity among the five musicians, including one false start before stopping to tune and an instance of one of the musicians saying the title of the number was "Summertime." I always enjoy patter when it is good and the mood onstage was contagious. Both audience and performers were having a good time. 'When they finally did get around to playing "One Winter's Night" it was more than well worth the entertaining wait for it. For the number Fleck swapped his banjo for a guitar, Bush switched to fiddle, joining Douglas and O'Connor, while Meyer remained faithful to his bass. The number was outstanding.

"We would like to thank all of the friends and neighbors who came out today to see us at the Hawley-Cooke bookstore," said Bush. "We look a lot better with make-up, don't we?"

Meyer said, "That was our string section. Now for our mandolin section ..." Bush and O'Connor provided mandolin for the wonderful next number, which I believe was titled "Macedonia."

"Lochs Of Dread" provided some very nice Irish sounds. Fleck and his banjo served up some interesting entertainment, at one point turning his banjo over and making knocking sounds on it.

A song written by Douglas and Meyer called "No Apologies" was said to have been written by the two "when we were mad at our wives or something." Corrected Meyer, "Jerry was mad at his wife." "We went ahead and apologized anyway," they related. There were two or three false starts on this number, including a stop to lower the forgotten emcee mike and my husband, apparently caught up in the quipping, quipped, "One more time and they're going to have to apologize."

Strength In Numbers has a lot of strengths: A wealth of talent, both individually and as a group; personality; showmanship; good audience rapport; and likability. I'm sure their fans will think of others.

Before the evening was over we had experienced such a fantastic evening of sheer musical talent that it is hard to describe. Other songs from The Telluride Sessions not previously identified by name included "Slopes" by Fleck and O'Connor, "Blue Men of the Sahara," a Fleck/Meyer collaboration; and Bush/Fleck's "Texas Red."

I was not alone in my enjoyment of the entire evening the audience demanded an encore. Said Bush, "Everywhere we go people say 'If you boys would just sing one ..."' With that, Bush and the others lit into a rousing version of "The Salty Dog Blues," singing as a group into one microphone and with the audience clapping and singing along. At song's end, Bush said tongue-in-cheek, "The talent just keeps on coming." And although he was joking, he spoke words of truth.

As a closer Strength In Numbers did a rousing tune called "Legislative Plasma." Whatta performance!

Don't miss this talented group the next time they come to our town, or even if they just come close. (I do hope the tickets won't all be snapped up, though, before I get mine!)