Yes, he does.
David Grisman Quintet @ College of Dupage, 11/2/2006
Because the Justice show was being held in the hellish basement known as Smartbar, I opted to spend my Thursday night in the suburbs seeing aging bluegrass/jam/jazz “icon” David Grisman with my dad. My father holds him up as the greatest living mandolinist, so I figured I should probably see the guy in action.
Looking as if they had just stepped out of a hookah bar or perhaps the nearest American Eagle outlet, Virginian openers Old School Freight Train were far better performers than composers. Their covers of trad country songs and Randy Newman (with whom the singer already shared a vocal likeness) were tight and sonically bright. Grisman has lumped praise upon the fivesome (upright bass, mandolin, fiddle, banjo and acoustic guitar) calling their work “finely-crafted” and “innovative.” After hearing their originals, all of which were easily distinguishable from the covers, I’m hard-pressed to agree. Their admirable decision not to swipe arrangements from the past left them with generic, loping acoustic folk/country tunes that were the shortstuff juveniles among the setlist. To close, they were joined by Grisman and his drummer on a bizarre rendition of “Superstition” robbed of its tenacity by a weak percussion section and a general lack of jive between the two disparate sounds.
When the lights came up I noticed I was neck and neck for youngest in the room (someone’s young daughter took the prize) and surrounded by nuevo hippies and their gray-haired predecessors. Thankfully the Quintet took the stage shortly after and I was spared extensive chats about dreadlocks (no joke).
For having been performing thirty years, Grisman shows his age more in his choice of setlist and stage presence than his playing. Starting with an old favorite that drew some hoots and hollers from the audience (who couldn’t decide whether or not to clap consistently throughout the night), the group quickly moved to material from new album, Dawg’s Groove. His quintet, made up of flute, up-right bass, drums and acoustic guitar, were mostly unexceptional. The stars were flamboyantly creepy flutist Matt Eckels, whose rampant melodies were pristine and acrobatic, and Grisman himself. At times their fusion of lite jazz, bluegrass (for the mandolin, mostly) and acoustic jamming was palatable and exciting, even if most tunes pushed my attention span. But at times, the Dawg (as he’s affectionately known, possibly for his fluffy poodle hair) got stuck in farty coffeehouse territory and needed a serious newspaper to face, case in point the failed tribute to James Brown and other pretentious jam forrays. Three times the group left the stage except for one member, so that dude could jam until his heart’s content and the audience’s relent.
I couldn’t help but wonder what his fans made of this ego-inflating experience. Most calls for old songs (and to reissue his old stuff) were met with deferrals to new stuff, instead telling the audience to check his website for daily downloads (where he does put up older material). For a $40 a seat concert, that’s a pretty cheap way to avoid fan favorites. If my dad is any barometer, there were some fans really turned off by the Dawg’s attitude and marginally accepting of his new direction. Though I was impressed by his technical skill, David Grisman was much like I knee-jerk expected: an old musician unwilling to re-live the good times with his fans, more interested in endless variations of an already stale new sound. It’s hard to blame him for trying, but sometimes it’s better not to teach old dawgs new tricks.