Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder – Concert Review
BBC Radio 2 Country Festival – London Arena – Saturday 22 April 2000
How Mountain Girls Can Love / Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music) /
Wheel Hoss / I Wouldn’t Change If I Could / Highway 40 Blues /
The Walls of Time / Uncle Pen / A Voice From On High / Get Up Joe
Ricky Scaggs & Kentucky Thunder along with Reba McEntire, Brad Paisley, Jo Dee Messina, The Derailers and Wayne Hancock provided a feast of wonderful music which allowed me to indulge myself in more than just chocolate eggs, at this, BBC Radio 2’s first country festival. Highlights from the event were broadcast the following day on National Radio. Unlike me for many long-time fans it must have brought forth the halcyon days of the Wembley Easter Festivals.
Speaking with BBC Radio broadcaster Nick Barraclough it seems it had been a very long-time since Ricky had come across the pond. Three years prior to this event he had been busy touring full time as well as starting 2 record labels including Skaggs Family Records. He also picked up a couple of Grammy Awards (Best Bluegrass Album for Bluegrass Rules! and Best Country Collaboration), and IBMA 1998 Album of the Year for his bluegrass records. He also had just completed his first gospel album SOLDIER OF THE CROSS.
Ricky spoke of his greatest joy walking into his studio, sitting behind his microphones, cutting records for his own label – “That is just a tremendous blessing” said Ricky. His aim being to bring the traditional sounds of the 40’s, 50’s and early 60’s bluegrass music and update them into this new millennium, with a similar approach to the way he adapted traditional country sounds in the early eighties when he visited the UK.
At this festival appearance he was drawing on the old music and playing it like it wasn’t played before. As a sound engineer Skaggs can make the music “sound big”, as was the case here, so he could comfortably follow pop-sounding Horizon Winner Joe Dee Messina and open before a full-blown Reba stage show. Without the luxury of a sound check (due to the lack of time), there were a few issues on stage. Well it sounded fine to me but they don’t call him “Picky Ricky” for nothing.
The top notch musicians of Kentucky Thunder cover every base from banjo and slide (Jim Mills) to the twin fiddle (Luke Bulla, Bobby Hicks), acoustic lead guitar (Clay Hess), bass (Mark Fain) and rhythm guitar and vocals (Darrin Vincent – baritone, Paul Brewster- tenor). The last 2 years Ricky and his band had 10 nominations from the IBMA in 1999 and have won awards for the best band in bluegrass. On the evidence of this performance it was easy to see why – “Whatcha got to do with bluegrass is lean in” says Scaggs – Well they certainly did that with their full-on, non-stop energy.
Traditional bluegrass music isn’t something I particularly make a point of listening to at home but to witness the incredible speed and skill of this band made me realise just how visual this genre is to fully appreciate its craft – It has to be seen to be believed! No wonder they have been referred to by the press as the “Blue Angels”. Not an electric instrument in sight here nor a drummer or any sound effect wizardry, just pure musical delight of the highest calibre. Each member of the band was a superb picker – Skaggs had certainly recruited the best! Not to omit the man himself, I’m sure many bluegrass aficionados would rate his own mandolin prowess with that of his mentor Bill Monroe whilst maintaining a vocal quality that showed why he was a leading neo-traditionalist back in the 80’s.
We got to hear several of his mainstream hits from those days with a dynamic version of ‘Wheel Hoss’ his Grammy Award winning instrumental from 1984, ‘I Wouldn’t Change If I Could’, followed by ‘Highway 40 Blues’. As this show was mostly a bluegrass centre-piece there was an excellent version of Peter Rowan’s ‘The Walls Of Time’ which appeared on Scaggs ANCIENT TONES album and early in the set ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’ the Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs number.
The honky tonk anthem ‘Dim Lights, Thick Smoke’ (And Loud, Loud Music), written by Max Fidler with Joe and Rose Maphis, was the biggest hit for the popular husband-and-wife act from the late ’40s and early ’50s. Fast forward to 2000, here with a fresh instrumental arrangement and moving harmonies, this was given a new lease of life. A track much covered over the years by names such as Vern Gosdin, Flatt & Scruggs to the likes of The Flying Burrito Brothers.
One of the highlights for me was a tribute paid to Monroe with the superb ‘Uncle Pen’. The song ‘A Voice From On High’ (featuring Paul Brewster’s’ high tenor) , which owes much of its sound to earlier recordings by the Stanley Brothers provided the perfect choice for Easter with the words ‘ He died on the cross, the old rugged cross / That we would be saved from sin and not lost ‘. This showcased material from Scaggs new album and as a Christian fundamentalist, musically speaking, showed he isn’t just out to soothe souls, but to save them.
It ended all too quickly with a super version of ‘Get Up Joe’, something that Sam Bush and Mr. Bill would have been impressed by. As Ricky and his band Kentucky Thunder left the stage the audience rose to its feet with load cheers echoing around the arena.