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My neighbor last night in the Red Hat Amphitheater seemed to be a bluegrass aficionado. During Hot Rize’s late-evening set, for instance, she used her cell phone to videotape incessantly and laughed heartily to most every one of Tim O’Brien’s inside jokes. But she returned late from the break and sat down just as the all-star sextet of the “Wide Open Jam” began to play. She scanned the stage, backtracked and leaned over to ask a question: “Who is that
The man in question was wearing a simple red plaid shirt, sleeves folded, and jeans so faded they would have blended into the Shimmer Wall like camouflage. Guitarist Bryan Sutton had kept his suit on from Hot Rize’s set, and Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan all wore some button-down. (Sam Bush, of course, was in a T-shirt.) The unfussy player looked as if he’d been plucked from the street and asked to sit in with bluegrass’s reigning instrumental heroes.
But it was Edgar Meyer
—or, last night, the reason to sit through a few quick showers and a litany of endless bluegrass solos after several days of them.
Meyer, of course, has bluegrass bona fides. He joins this exact group every year at Telluride, and he’s played with Grisman, Bush, Union Station and Mike Marshall many times before. But Meyer is a true musical polyglot, having bounced between roots and classical, jazz and international fair for decades. A dozen years ago, his aversion to boundaries netted a MacArthur Fellowship. So he's not the most frequent face in bluegrass, even if he's one of the best. When I told my neighbor it was Meyer, she shouted. The guy is that good.
For most of last night’s 90-minute set, Meyer played with the casual ease of someone cooking a simple breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast. He stared at the ground, listening but not looking, thumbing the bass lines with the ease of someone who’d simply been programmed to play the stuff. But when he’d take a solo, reaching for the great big bass bow at his right side, he looked at and leaned into the instrument with an invigorating intensity. Invariably, everyone else on stage turned to watch and even gather around him, as his moments in the spotlight represented the night’s one true break from predictable if predictably excellent mandolin sprints and banjo breaks. With his hands straining where the neck meets the bass’s body, he conjured fluttering, fluid notes to rival those of Douglas’ dobro, strange and ecstatic beauties that I hoped would last forever.
Alas, Meyer was surrounded by five other players, the best in the business, and they took the lion’s share of the solos. In those fleeting passages, where Meyer funneled a world of music into a few seconds of a solo for several thousand people, though, no other musician on stage mattered.
If you want to see Meyer, he'll be with Chris Thile at the Carolina Theatre on Wednesday.