EVERY edition of the Savannah Music Festival seems to bring one particular, very special show that perfectly encapsulates why the Festival is so unique, and so beloved. Last night’s transcendent double bill of Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas at the Lucas Theatre is one of those shows.
I’d wager that everyone who saw it will keep the memory alive for quite awhile, and remember this show above all others they may have seen at this year’s Festival.
While Jerry Douglas “opened” for Bush, this was much more of a meeting of equals. After all, someone’s got to go on first. The parity between these two bona fide geniuses of American music was made apparent when Douglas joined Bush for an extended and delightful encore at the evening's end.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Whenever I tell people that the Savannah Music Festival features literally the very best in the world at their particular instruments, Jerry Douglas is a prime, possibly the prime, example. He is – and almost no one would argue with this – the best Dobro player in the world.
Douglas is also a longtime veteran of the Savannah Music Festival itself, and has garnered a very devoted local following, based largely on these frequent appearances. His roughly hour-long set last night featured stunning flights of instrumental fancy, with Douglas and bandmates trading extended, shimmering solos.
While Douglas’s skill and sensitivity on his instrument speaks for itself, I can’t say enough good things about Mike Seal, his guitarist. Accompanying Douglas on a six-string electric, Seal almost seemed to push Douglas to the next level through the sheer force of his own creativity -- a pretty big accomplishment.
Though mostly jazz-trained, Seal masterfully uses a more country/bluegrass finger-picking technique with Douglas’s band. Full of musical surprises, his solos literally kept me on the edge of my seat.
There was only one tune in the set with vocals, a fun cover of Tom Waits’s “2:19," with Douglas doing his best gravelly-voiced impression.
While the highlight of the set for me was their beautiful and sweeping instrumental “Come And Go,” my guess is most in the audience would instead pick Douglas’s poignant and touching cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as their favorite.
After a brief intermission, Sam Bush – an almost impossibly spry and youthful 70-year-old, jokingly described as “the Energizer Bunny” by Douglas – took the stage with his usual good humor and generous aplomb.
An iconic name in bluegrass/newgrass circles, Bush has introduced Appalachian roots music to a whole new generation of Americans, from country fans to Deadheads alike. This age diversity was reflected in the audience at the Lucas Theatre. The Savannah Music Festival audience tends to skew old, but there were actually plenty of 30 and even 20-somethings in this audience.
Bush and his excellent band are touring behind a new album devoted to the music of the late John Hartford, an American music icon in his own right who essentially invented progressive bluegrass. (If you're unfamiliar with Hartford's music, you're definitely familiar with his most well-known song, "Gentle On My Mind," a huge hit for Glen Campbell. Hartford would say that the songwriting royalties from that one tune alone gave him full musical and economic independence.)
Like Hartford, Bush is also a gifted multi-instrumentalist. While he stayed on his signature mandolin most of this evening, when he did pull out the fiddle you could almost hear the angels sing.
I especially enjoyed Bush's cheerful shout-out to Savannah legend Randy Wood, "luthier to the stars," who restored one of Bush's mandolins. Wood remains one of Savannah's true treasures, and is one reason the town is so well-regarded by so many world-renowned musical artists, who come here just to see him and get him to work on their instruments.
Hartford tunes that Bush covered included “Tall Buildings” and the hilarious “Granny Wontcha Smoke Some Marijuana.” Bush and company also played the new album’s title track “Radio John," a song written by Bush about Hartford.
Bush’s roughly 90-minute set concluded with a satisfying, long encore in which Douglas joined him for a duo rendition of Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country.”
And then the real fun started, when all the night’s musicians – both full bands – came out onstage at once to join Bush and Douglas for a long rave-up of solos and sheer musical delight.
It was less an encore than a mini-set of its own, and had the audience dancing in the aisles. Everyone left the Lucas with a big grin on their faces.