The Bluegrass Sessions at Whitney Hall, October 8, 1999

By Michael Campbell

From the opening moments of the show in which the "A-list" instrumental team of American acoustic music took the stage, (joining the music one at a time) through the final song of the encore, exhilaration ruled for over three hours. Not content to merely stand and deliver virtuoso turns on their chosen instruments, banjo wizard Bela Fleck, mandolinist Sam Bush, guitarist Brian Sutton, fiddler Stuart Duncan, bassist/dancer Mark Schatz, and Jerry Douglas (the Michael Jordan of the DoBro) delivered infectious fun.

Turning a world music groove ninety degrees right into traditional reels, then cascading through treacherous time signatures that teeter like improbable, improper fractions into rumba, they followed with straight-up bluegrass without ever missing a beat. On the Flatt & Scruggs classic "Polka on the Banjo," they even lay claim to "polk-ass" music.

Dipping into Bela Fleck's latest Warner Brothers recording, The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales From The Acoustic Planet, Vol. 2, on which Bush, Douglas and Schatz are also featured, the eclectic ensemble deployed yet another musical tool: vocals; respectable multi-part harmonies that effectively propelled traditionals like "Salty Dog" and "I Know You're Married, But I Love You Still."

The second of two sets was the one that ignited performer and audience alike, initiated by a scorching medley from Bush and Douglas that began with "Mannish Boy," morphed into "Crossroads" and kicked into "Sailin' Shoes." Even Fleck's sad and stately "Overgrown Waltz" could not suppress what had been unleashed.

As with the stellar Strength In Numbers group (of which Bush, Fleck, and Douglas were members), the musical categories are rendered meaningless, leaving the listener to free to consider only the passion and precision of music well-played. While not possessed with the relentless intensity of SIN, this lineup offered moments of sheer humanity that satisfied as fully as the music itself: the newcomer Brian Sutton's shy smile of acknowledgement after his first solo was cheered; Schatz' scene-stealing dance and body percussion and the bits of business they constantly played upon each other.

Thirty-five years after "A Hard Days Night," these men shared with those in attendance the gift of the same kind of irresistible joy as that film: great musicians who are great friends playing their music and having the time of their lives.