Travelling through Germany with the Bluegrass Jamboree

Back in November, my other half and I had driven east and west to see The Deadly Gentlemen playing in Leeds and then Liverpool. We were so impressed that we decided to treat ourselves to a trip to Germany to see them play the Bluegrass Jamboree, alongside Della Mae and Cahalen Morrison & Eli West. The Jamboree, now in its third year, is an admirable project put together by German promoter and agent Rainer Zellner. This annual tour showcases (mostly American) bluegrass and old-time bands in venues throughout Germany. In December 2011, the Jamboree hit 18 cities and towns in 18 days, visiting Prague (CZ) and Schaffhausen (CH) as well as the 16 German shows.

For those who aren’t familiar with The Deadly Gentlemen, this five-piece is led by banjo innovator and all-round clever bloke Greg Liszt. Greg was educated at Yale and MIT, has a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology and also somehow found time to develop his own four-fingered banjo picking technique. We’d met Greg before when he was playing with his other band Crooked Still, and this led us to check out the Deadly Gentlemen CD, “Carry Me to Home” (Greg also produced the album and wrote most of the material). Energetic and hugely talented musicians, the remaining band members are Mike Barnett (fiddle), Stash Wyslouch (guitar), Dominick Leslie (mandolin) and Samson Grisman (bass).

The Deadly Gentlemen would be taking the middle slot of each concert, with Cahalen Morrison & Eli West opening the show. This made sense as Cahalen & Eli’s brand of old timey roots music is quieter and more reflective. This duo is based in Seattle and they got quite a bit of media buzz in the UK when they were here back in November 2011, including a session on the Bob Harris show and another on Radio 3. Della Mae were headlining the Jamboree shows, although it’s probably fair to say that this was a truly equal triple bill. This female five-piece is the most straight-ahead bluegrass of the three acts (comparatively) and the one I knew least about beforehand. I was looking forward to experiencing them live, especially after seeing their impressive fiddle player Kimber Ludiker at the Cornish Bluegrass Festival in 2010.

Flying in and out of Memmingen, about 90 minutes west of Munich, we had picked three concerts to attend in southern Germany (gigs 2, 4 and 5 of the Jamboree). We started off in Reutlingen, a bustling town in Baden-Wurttemberg. The venue itself, the Franz K, is a former cinema and was packed almost to capacity in the main hall and balcony. A local bluegrass band was performing a pre-concert set in the bar and the scene was set for a lively evening. At each show, promoter Rainer gave a short intro in German explaining the roots of bluegrass music, the role of Bill Monroe and giving a quick description of the three bands.

Highlights of Cahalen & Eli’s 30 minute set included “Stone to Sand”, with its lovely mando-guitar interplay, and the gorgeous a capella harmonies of “My Bloody Heart”. The Deadly Gentlemen then hit the stage in style, ripping into “Police” with its catchy fiddle refrain and synchronised shouting. Mellower new songs including “Faded Star” and “I Fall Back” also got an outing, and guitarist Stash proved to be a crowd favourite with his occasional semi-comic forays into German. The Reutlingen audience lapped it up, and the boys got a great reception. After the interval, Della Mae performed a stonking set featuring both originals and old favourites. Highlights included “Bowling Green” and “Polk County” and there was plenty of audience appreciation for the instrumental breaks by fiddler Kimber Ludiker, guitarist Courtney Hartman and Jenni Lyn Gardner on mandolin. Smiling bass player Amanda Kowalski was also a crowd favourite, and Celia Woodsmith’s bluesy vocals were outstanding. The entire gang of musicians then took to the stage at the end of the night for several encores including a rip-roaring “Wheel Hoss”.

After a late night we moved on Munich, where we would spend the weekend (taking a night off from the Jamboree while they popped down to Switzerland). It was the first Saturday in December, Bayern were playing at home and the streets around the various Christmas markets were thronged with people.

By show time, the superb wood-panelled auditorium of Munich’s Amerika Haus was packed to capacity with around 400 concert goers. We saw Eli West take up the clawhammer banjo for a change on his own tune “Cutting In” (with Cahalen on octave mandolin) and were also treated to a lively version of the Norman Blake classic “Church Street Blues”. The Deadly Gentlemen delivered another superb set with just the right mix of up-tempo and laidback. “Moonshiner” has the makings of a classic, with the fiddle soaring above Greg’s lovely rolling banjo. Della Mae were on top form again, with “I’m Walkin’” showcasing Celia’s powerful voice as well as the band’s instrumental chops. Courtney Hartman impressed throughout on flatpicking guitar and vocals, as well as duetting on clawhammer banjo with Kimber for “Mississippi Sawyer”. Still studying at Berklee College of Music, this unassuming but multi-talented young woman is a name to watch out for! The Munich crowd was treated to another fabulous round of encores, and sang along enthusiastically during “I’ll Fly Away”.

Monday saw us travelling to the small but handsome town of Ravensburg. Famous for its many towers, it was a charming base for our last night in Germany. The venue, the Zehntscheuer, was in a lovely old 14th Century half-timbered building. The evocative interior seemed to bring out something extra in the musicians, as there was a special atmosphere throughout the evening. One of the joys of our expedition was in getting to see (and hear) a different mix of songs every night. And of course we were very fortunate in being able to experience the music in a truly “up-close and personal” way. While these are artists who deserve to be selling out stadiums, I for one am thankful to be able to see them play in intimate venues like this.

Cahalen and Eli’s set featured yet more of their near-flawless mix of tight harmony vocals and instrumental virtuosity, including one of my favourites, “All for the Sake of Day”. Highlights from The Deadly Gents included a roof-raising version of Brittany Haas’ fiddle tune “Locust in the Willow”. Della Mae were on fine form, with a hard-driving “From the Bottle”, an original by Celia Woodsmith, one of the highlights.

All in all it had been another great evening of music, and was finished off in delightful fashion by the most spirited set of encores yet, including swapping of instruments and much general hilarity. Both the Deadly Gentlemen and Cahalen Morrison & Eli West are planning to return to the UK in 2012, so do get out and support them if you can. This is live music at its finest. (No news on Della Mae visiting the UK just at the moment). In the meantime, the Bluegrass Jamboree would be rolling out of town the next day, with many miles to go and another 12 towns to visit. But it would be leaving without us. We had to get back to everyday life – until the next time.

Listen & Buy – Carry Me to Home by The Deadly Gentlemen

Listen & Buy – The Holy Coming of the Storm by Cahalen & Eli

Listen & Buy – I Built This Heart by Della Mae

[This is an abridged version of an article written for British Bluegrass News and which will appear in the Spring 2012 edition of the magazine.]