When: Sat., Feb. 18, 5 & 8 p.m. 2017
Playing other people's music is a guiding principle of bluegrass. Along with the traditional tunes that belong to nobody and everybody, artists swap and rework one another's songs out of admiration, both within and increasingly beyond the genre.The Seldom Scene did J.J. Cale's "After Midnight" and Eric Clapton's "Lay Down Sally" in 1981, while The Gourds' 2001 rendition of Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice" was a novel, if questionable, effort. Punch Brothers, while not technically bluegrass, have used those same instrumentations to tackle Radiohead, Mclusky, The Beatles, The Strokes, and more in recent years. When it comes to covers, everything is fair game.
Saturday night, one intrepid ensemble brings its bluegrass-gone-rogue effort to Raleigh. In 2015, the Colorado quintet The HillBenders premiered Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry, which is exactly what it sounds like: a straight-through cover of The Who's 1969 LP, Tommy. The banjo picking in the intro to "Pinball Wizard" more closely matches Elton John's version featured in the 1975 film, but the band is mostly faithful to its source material, adorning it with extended instrumental solos.
Over in Durham on the same evening, you can find a veritable bluegrass ouroboros: The Earls of Leicester, an outfit that honors the music of Flatt & Scruggs, takes the stage to a sold-out crowd at Duke's Baldwin Auditorium. Led by celebrated dobro master Jerry Douglas, The Earls of Leicester (pronounced "lester," mind) pay direct homage to two of the men who, along with Bill Monroe, were the original pillars of bluegrass.
The personnel of The Earls of Leicester are some of the best contemporary players in the genre—Douglas, but also bassist Barry Bales and guitarist and vocalist Shawn Camp. Where The HillBenders aim to transmogrify a rock classic, The Earls seek to re-create the music of their heroes, note for note. In a 2014 interview with the INDY about the project, Douglas delighted in the fact that the Earls' recordings often matched the length of the Flatt & Scruggs originals to within a second. In the same interview, he gushed that the point of the Earls was to "pay homage," because the originals, they thought, couldn't be played any better.
It's fair to ask of each band both "Why?" and "Why not?" The HillBenders' efforts can come off as superfluous, but then, maybe it's fun to hear an old favorite done in a new style. The Earls of Leicester at least offer an up-close opportunity to study the technical execution of artists who are no longer alive, but again, the whole point of the endeavor is a Flatt & Scruggs facsimile. The novelty factor for each is high, but at least both can back it up with chops. —Allison Hussey