Bluegrass in a white-out; Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Dakota Jazz Club, Minneapolis, MN, 4/18/13

Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder:  L - R:  Andy Leftwich (fiddle); Cody Kilby (lead guitar); Ricky Skaggs; Eddie Faris (baritone vocals; rhythm guitar); Paul Brewster (tenor vocals; rhythm guitar); Justin Moses (banjo, dobro, background vocals); rear - Scott Mulvahill (upright bass, bass vocals)

Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder: L – R: Andy Leftwich (fiddle); Cody Kilby (lead guitar); Ricky Skaggs; Eddie Faris (baritone vocals; rhythm guitar); Paul Brewster (tenor vocals; rhythm guitar); Justin Moses (banjo, dobro, background vocals); rear – Scott Mulvahill (upright bass, bass vocals)

It began the night before, with a cold rain gradually turning to sleet, then snow by daybreak.  The flakes got heavier and more intense as the morning progressed, and by mid-day the blizzard was on.  Schools closed, traffic snarled, and businesses let their employees leave earlier, to flee the last blast of this endless winter for the warmth and comfort of their homes.

Frequent checks of the Dakota’s website gave no indication that the show would be canceled.  If the boys from Kentucky were determined enough to make this gig, then by God us Minnesotans had no reason not to show up.  Snowstorm be damned!  Time to saddle up the Subaru and ride her through this mess and into downtown!

Ricky Skaggs took the stage as scheduled, promptly at 7:00, his youthful Kentucky Thunder arrayed on either side of him like disciples around the Messiah.  Mr. Skaggs, was warm, friendly and engaging, thanking the audience for showing up on such a miserable night and making no mention of what must have been a harrowing bus ride to get to Minneapolis.  Ricky and the band hit the ground running, starting off with the up-tempo “How Mountain Girls,” featuring classic bluegrass four-part vocal harmonies, as well as solos by Ricky on mandolin, Andy Leftwich on fiddle, Cody Kilby on guitar, and Justin Moses on banjo – a pattern that would be repeated often during the set.

Mandolin master Ricky Skaggs
Mandolin master Ricky Skaggs

Mr. Skaggs has (how to put this delicately?) become a man of some substance as he’s entered middle age, yet his nimble fingers flew over the mandolin fretboard with the speed and dexterity of a man half his size.  Small wonder, given the fact that he started playing the instrument more than 50 years ago, at the tender age of five.  Later in the set, while introducing “Lovin’ You Too Well,” Ricky noted that the well-worn instrument he was playing once belonged to Pee Wee Lambert, who was a member of the Stanley Brothers band in the late 40’s – early 50’s.

From “How Mountain Girls” the band shifted gears to the slower, country weeper, “Selfish Heart,” with Messrs. Leftwich, Kilby and Moses once again taking solos, sandwiched around Ricky’s turns on the mandolin.

Deviating from the set list, Ricky chose a tune by the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, called “Toy Heart.”  Ricky noted the enormous contributions that Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs made while they were members of Bill Monroe’s band, before pursuing their own career, and also paid homage to Nashville radio station WSM, a 50,000-watt clear channel station most noteworthy for broadcasting the Grand Ole Opry across the country.

“Bluegrass Breakdown,” was another fast and furious rave-up, featuring the by-now familiar mandolin-fiddle-banjo-guitar-mandolin series of solos.  From Ricky Skaggs’ most recent album, 2012’s “Music To My Ears,” came the Kirk McGee-penned tune “Blue Night,” originally recorded by the estimable Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys.  This was Ricky’s best vocal turn of the night.  With no harmony vocals, his earnest, plaintive, yet impassioned voice had that “high lonesome” quality to it that is the hallmark of traditional bluegrass singing.  Switching gears, Ricky introduced the humorous “You Can’t Hurt Ham,” as “a song about the durability of cured pork,” with its whimsical chorus: “No refrigerate, no expire date / You can’t hurt ham.”

He's a guitar man, too!

He’s a guitar man, too!

Ricky switched to guitar, and Justin Moses exchanged banjo for dobro, for the gentle, country-flavored title track to “Music To My Ears.”   Ever ready to pay tribute to his musical forbears, Ricky paused to offer a reminiscence of the late Doc Watson, before introducing one of Doc’s signature tunes, “Tennessee Stud.”  He commented that the version by Gid Tanner & The Skillet Lickers, with Riley Puckett on guitar, was lively enough to “make a one-legged fella get up & dance!” Unfortunately, there was no room for dancing in the Dakota, or several folks might have taken the hint.

Switching back to mandolin, Ricky closed the set with the instrumental “New Jerusalem,” from the current album, followed by the Bill Monroe tune “Sally Jo,” featuring a sort of instrumental call-and-response between Ricky on mandolin, Andy Leftwich on fiddle, and Cody Kilby on guitar.  The lone encore was the overtly Christian-themed “A Work Of Love,” from his 2010 release, “Mosaic.”  Although he is a man of faith, Ricky is careful to gauge his audience and the setting, carefully avoiding any proselytizing while playing in a secular context.

Apparently, the inclement weather caused a number of persons holding tickets for the second show to stay home, as the announcement came over the house PA system that anyone who wanted to stay for the later show was welcome to do so.  For The Missus and me, we were pleased and satisfied with the set we had just seen, so we passed on the opportunity for a second helping and turned our attention to the grim business of navigating through the snow-filled streets, back to our home, with the sound of mandolin, fiddle, guitar, banjo and bass pleasantly ringing in our ears.

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