Well if you are a music buff no, obviously not. Bluegrass music is a little bit of country, a smattering of folk, a hint of jazz and blues with some gospel soul thrown in. It’s usually played on acoustic stringed instruments – mandolin, banjo, bass, fiddle and guitar – and has inspired the likes of Alison Krauss and Counting Crows to record whole albums of the classics and play at the many bluegrass festivals across America. Most recently it hit the mainstream in the Coen Brother’s film,O Brother Where Art Thou? starring George Clooney. In it he and his prison mates play in a bluegrass music band called the Soggy Bottom Boys. I’ve not seen it, but I know a fair few George Clooney fans who swear it is one of his best films. Ten years on it is still doing its bit to bring bluegrass music to the masses.
Now I freely admit I find it hard to say ‘Yee Har!!’ without feeling very silly, and my record collection is usually referred to as ‘Mummy’s miserable music’ and more likely to feature Portishead, Elbow and Neil Hannon’s Divine Comedy, or Vaughan Williams and Renaissance choral music. So perhaps the gig I went to on Saturday night was not one you might normally find me attending. However, the promise of a free cider and a slap up supper will find me willing to give anything a go, so there I was on Saturday night sitting in cosy Nynehead Village Hall eating baked potatoes and cheesecake (always a great option on a filling in my view :-)). We were there to listen to the Thunderbridge Bluegrass Boys playing a charity gig in aid of pretty little Runnington Church. One of the band lives in the village (as does my sister) and was doing his bit for the church roof fund. Or something. Lead was mentioned, and the fact that christenings can be held on rainy days simply by holding the baby up under the holes between the rafters. It is tiny and its position in idyllic countryside, its scattered gravestones overlooking fields of sheep, seems straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel (although saying this I risk offending friends in the next county; this is Somerset rather than Dorset). It is also dear to our hearts as it is where Peter and I renewed our vows in 2008. A good cause then.
My daughter Evie is a folk fiddle player so we are used to jolly jigs and reels, generally Irish or American, practised over and over again until you quite forget that you had enjoyed them at some point in the dim and distant past. I do love a bit of Seth Lakeman or Dougie McLean, Christy Moore or the Saw Doctors, but I have to be in the right mood, and one thing I have never been able to bear is vocal harmony groups. Not those performing beautiful sacred choral music, but -you know – barbershop quartets (or worse, those choirs of women in stripy waistcoats and boaters); male voice choirs or the Kings Singers. Urgh. So when that ‘harmony’ word was used early on in the evening I was filled with concern that even at 5.4 abv, the cider was not going to be strong enough to pull me through.
However, I now freely admit my worries were unfounded. Wisely, we were allowed to eat our main course before the band came on, and with the promise of pudding in the interval I was happy to give them an hour and kept my fingers crossed that there was no waving of bowlers or renditions of ‘Sweet Adeline’.
Grouped round one microphone the Thunderbridge Bluegrass style is what is frequently referred to on the X factor as ‘all about the voice’ and ‘no tricks and frills’. Nick (the lead singer and obvious front man) has a fabulous voice and Martin, Brian and Jules all take a turn. Jules (a rather scary looking chap to be honest) largely added a slightly demonic bass note which, teamed with his first rate double bass playing really brings the band together in my view.
I took some video footage on my phone, but I got rather too much of the audience and too little of the band, and the sound does not do them justice so you will just have to go look them up at a festival near you next summer, or pick up some of the songs on Youtube (although the sound is still not good and I find it hard to take their video seriously when I know it was filmed in fields near Wellington where I take our dog for a walk every day.)
Anyway, after an hour the band took a break and we were given access to a whole range of delicious home baked puddings with clotted cream, along with a cheeseboard if we still had space to squeeze another calorie in. As always, we failed to win anything on the raffle, which was a great pity as there was a lot of food and alcohol on offer and I am sure my numbers weren’t picked simply because I bumped hard into the elderly gentleman just before he started drawing the tickets. But Alison from Runnington and her band of helpers had done the Church proud. It was all good fun and we were promised a great second half.
It was, though, another hour of more of the same – great bluegrass, a few gospel numbers and quite a lot of joking around. However, I would have liked a bit more toe tapping and foot stomping stuff to keep me awake up to 11pm, with strong cider and a big meal inside me. Even the risk of chronic indigestion would have been worth it. Just a hint for another time lads – speed it up a bit and get the audience on their feet.
They may occasionally wear dungarees; their headgear is dubious (though they look more funky and interesting with it on) and there isn’t a George Clooney amongst them, bless them. But I would say catch them if you can, at one of the many festivals they play all over Europe; they are a great band. My daughter loves them, and if a sixteen year girl can find something to like in a band full of middle aged blokes then I reckon they must be cool.
(Gratuitous picture of George Clooney included for Jane Earthy, my fab sister as reward for encouraging us to go to the gig in the first place)