Dixie Bee-Liners, Sierra Hull and Uncle Earl Spread The Gospel of Old-Time and Bluegrass
The American Revival Tour is currently winding its way down the Eastern seaboard, spreading the gospel of oldtime and bluegrass. Monday night the tour stopped in Alexandria’s at the Birchmere. Though the venue wasn’t sold out, there was a respectable turnout for a weeknight, especially considering that Lyle Lovett and Bruce Springsteen were in town. Because there were three acts, each was limited to a 40-minute set, but for listeners, that added up to two hours of excellent music at a reasonable price. Verdict: a good deal
First up were The Dixie Bee-Liners, a six-person group that blends bluegrass, country, and folk, and has charm to spare. Most of their material was from new release Susanville; the album’s tagline is “every car on the highway has a story,” and the Bee-Liners deliver these vignettes about roadside cafes, wanderlust, and a demographic of women known as “diesel sniffers” with sweet harmonies, fierce picking, and catchy turns of phrase.
Following the Bee-Liners was Sierra Hull, bluegrass’ current Anointed One. The mandolin virtuoso was barely old enough to vote in yesterday’s elections, but when it comes to performing, she’s a seasoned pro. She and her band Highway 111 (with Ron Block taking the place of the band’s regular banjo player, Cory Walker) ripped through an all too short set that captivated the audience. Hull’s vocals are Krauss-like, her angelic soprano balancing masterful mandolin picking and making it all look incredibly easy. Guitarist Clay Hess took lead vocals for a couple songs in addition to, as he put it “doing [his] best impression of a 16-year old girl” on the harmonies for stunning ballad “The Hard Way.” Personally I’m looking forward to the day Hull and her band return to the Birchmere as headliners: 40 minutes just wasn’t enough.
Closing the show was Uncle Earl, who opened their set with an oldtimey version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Moves on the Water.” The g’Earls, as they call themselves, are women of many talents; banjoist Paula Bradley and Kristin Andreassen kicked up their heels and clogged along to a few fiddle tunes, while fiddler Stephanie Coleman cracked up the crowd by introducing the rather depressing “The Drunkard’s Lone Child” as “not an autobiographical song, but my dad got so drunk at my sister’s wedding…”
Their set wasn’t all drunkenness and sinking ships: there was a whole lot of goofy banter among the bandmembers between songs, and the madly catchy “Crayola,” written by Andreassen, saw Uncle Earl eschewing their instruments in favor of some elaborate playground clapping (think “Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack,”). The gals currently have Bryn Davies keeping the rhythm for them on the American Revival Tour; Davies, known as “The Bass Lady,” has played with artists like Tony Rice and Guy Clark, but her seamless incorporation into the band made it seem like she’d been with UE since their inception a decade ago. The band was also briefly joined by Punch Brother and honorary g’Earl Chris Eldridge, one of the few American Revivalists to possess a Y chromosome.
All three acts mentioned the Birchmere’s long history as a roots-friendly venue, with Hull, a first-timer, naming it “totally a legendary place to play” and confessing to owning several bootleg recordings of Birchmere bluegrass shows, while the Dixie Bee-Liners dedicated a song to the late John Duffey, a DC native and member of the Country Gentlemen and Birchmere mainstays The Seldom Scene. Perhaps it might be too early to make such statements, but I’m going to say that in 20 years, many of these musicians will be talked about as reverently as Bee-Liner Buddy Woodward spoke of Duffey.
After Uncle Earl’s set, all 15 musicians on the American Revival Tour—joined by a towheaded toddler playing what appeared to be air washboard—crowded around a pair of microphones for one final song, “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” Driving home with the Bee-Liners’ new record keeping me company, I felt the same way.
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