By Maria Wallace
Spring was on the horizon, and we were getting itchy feet after a long winter. What could be better than to follow the latest Deadly Gentlemen tour through the highways and byways of England for a few days? It’s our favourite kind of mini break.
For those unfamiliar with the Gentlemen, this young five-piece emerged from the roots music hotbed of Boston a couple of years ago, led by Crooked Still banjo player Greg Liszt, who also writes most of the lyrics. Originally featuring a spoken word/rap style of vocals, the band has morphed into something a little more conventional but still different from the norm, with some surprisingly sweet songs interspersed with the more lively numbers. We’d got to know Greg slightly from all the Crooked Still concerts we attended, which is how The Deadly Gentlemen came on to our radar – along with the fact that they have been consistently championed by Katherine and Jer here at ukbluegrass.com. After seeing the band in Yorkshire in November, we were so impressed that we headed over to Germany in December to see them play on the Bluegrass Jamboree tour.
The lads are obviously keen to make their mark in the UK as they were back on tour here again in March. They started out in style with a house concert in Edinburgh followed by a spot on the bill at the Celtic Connections Big Top concert on Skye.
We began our mini-odyssey with a local-ish gig in Sheffield a few days later. It was a Monday night in the Backroom at the Greystones pub, and started out a bit quiet during the support band slots. But once the Gentlemen took to the stage, the crowd had grown to a respectable number and gave the lads a warm welcome. They delivered a lively set which included cracking versions of Bullet in My Shoulder and their original fiddle tune Ol’ Barnes.
Their instrumental virtuosity is constantly apparent, Greg’s precision riff ‘n’ rollin’ banjo complemented by Mike Barnett’s soaring, occasionally jazzy fiddle licks. Dominick Leslie on mandolin keeps a constant rhythmic drive and Stash Wyslouch contributes solid rhythm guitar as well as some gorgeous breaks. Sam Grisman regularly throws in interesting melodic runs as well as holding everything down on bass. And then there is the singing, shared among the whole band (though Stash and Greg take the lion’s share of lead vocals) and ranging from the sweetest of harmony singing to portions of spoken word and even synchronised shouting! It’s very impressive. But what really shines through is their enjoyment in playing together and their love of the songs. This is one of those bands where the energy reaches out and reels in the audience.
The following day, we travelled down to London in unseasonably warm late March weather for the next concert. The Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell is a funky pub with some excellent beer on tap (some even brewed in Camden). Opening band The Wagon Tales kicked off the evening in fine style, featuring a mix of traditional and modern bluegrass with a quirky twist. The crowd was well warmed up by the time The Deadly Gentlemen came on, and they didn’t disappoint, galloping into a brilliant rendition of Police at the outset which rocked the house.
Unfortunately Sam Grisman had come down with food poisoning that afternoon, but the show went on with Sam manfully playing his part, marred only slightly by his periodic sheltering behind his bass and chucking up in a bucket! (I kid you not). In the end the Gentlemen cut their set slightly short, and poor old Sam got an absolutely massive ovation. Luckily they had a day off the next day, as did we, allowing us to enjoy the delights of a walk on Hampstead Heath in the sunshine.
Our journey continued on Thursday with a trip out to the Far East – Norwich, that is. The boys were playing at the Bicycle Shop, which turned out to be a really cool little café/bar. Support came from Them Harvey Boys who delivered a lively set round a single mic. They finished off with the Bee Gees’ Staying Alive which went down very well with the sell out crowd crammed into the tiny downstairs gig room.
The Deadly Gentlemen stormed it with a super set which included a spontaneous outing for Lonesome Road Blues as a tribute to the late Earl Scruggs, who had passed away the previous day. Impressive renditions of songs from the upcoming new album included the driving Bored of the Raging and the gentle Faded Star. These joined the classic Moonshiner, gorgeous Carry Me to Home and funky Bad Habit Blues in a varied set, nicely balanced to show off both the delicate and crazy sides of the Gentlemen’s musical oeuvre. A crowd-pleasing finish saw them leave the miniature corner stage and line up among the punters in front of the bar for an acoustic finale of Working followed by the fiddle tune frenzy of Locusts Took the Child. After the gig the Bicycle Shop didn’t seem in any hurry to close, and the Gentlemen were kind enough to share a beer and a chat with us while they ate their post-show tapas.
Like many bluegrass musicians, they are involved with other musical projects as well as being busy recording and touring with The Deadly Gentlemen, and the connections are many and varied. Sam plays occasionally with his father’s band the David Grisman Quintet and along with Stash, is a member of the Earth Stringband, recently touring in South-east Asia. Dominick has played with all manner of bluegrass luminaries including Missy Raines and Bill Evans and is also a regular member of Grant Gordy’s band. Mike plays frequently with Tony Trischka as well as with the David Grisman and Grant Gordy collectives. Greg, as mentioned, has been a member of Crooked Still since 2001, although that band is taking a year’s hiatus during 2012.
After our late night in Norwich, we had a pleasant time the following day, touring through rural Norfolk and Suffolk, looking at old stone churches and visiting the occasional country pub. Tonight’s gig (our last of the tour) was to be held in the slightly surreal surroundings of Easton Park Farm, which turned out to be a tourist attraction complete with horses, lambs, goats and pot-bellied pigs. The band seemed to find this highly entertaining and roamed around before show time taking pictures of themselves with the aforementioned critters. The gig was staged by the same promoters who hold the alt-country/Americana Maverick Festival here in the summer time.
Inside the concert barn, it was after 10pm by the time the Gentlemen hit the stage, and the two support acts had left the audience in a rather quiet and sleepy mood. The lads soon livened things up with their usual energetic groove on songs including The Road is Rocky, the funky 99 Days and another stonking version of Lonesome Road Blues with some glorious fiddle and banjo breaks from Mike and Greg. We stood at the side and had a bit of a dance in the aisle. The latest road trip was over and it was time to make our farewells and start the midnight trek north.
Look out for The Deadly Gentlemen on their next tour and for their new CD which should be released soon. In the meantime you can check out the wonderful Carry Me to Home album at Bandcamp.
Read more about Maria’s musical adventures on her blog at www.truenorthmusic.co.uk.