A pair of intimate shows exhibit the range and power of bluegrass duo, Blake & Groves. Honest Tune was there for both of them.
Words/ Photos: Jake Cudek
Blake & Groves
The Kitchen Sink Studio
Santa Fe, NM
Blake & Groves is a traditional bluegrass duo comprised of Greg Blake and KC Groves. West Virginia native, Greg Blake is an inspiration, as his vocal resonance and stringed performance echo with “that drawl” that pulls in anyone who is looking for the authentic musicality of the old school. Partner, KC Groves, founding member of the all-girl, old-timey, bluegrass band Uncle Earl, is certainly nothing to scoff at either. Switching between mandolin and guitar, while balancing out the high end to the low tone of Blake, this bluegrass girl represents the power and authority that reflects her genuine passion for the genre.
Billed as “The Blue Grass and Green Chilies” tour, these two powerhouses hit the Southwest for the better part of November, bringing with them their brand of story-telling traditional bluegrass, all the while looking for that elusive, magical ingredient Appalachia players of yore probably never tasted: Green Chilies.
One of the earlier stops in the Land of Enchantment was the newly revamped Kitchen Sink Studios. Long-time producer and musician, Jono Manson, who has worked with the likes of Blues Traveler, Warren Haynes, Pete Seeger and a plethora of who’s who in the entertainment industries of both music and film, operates this space and offers a unique opportunity for artists. By creating a space for musicians to both perform in front of an in-studio audience while simultaneously producing a recording session for future use, his vision reflects his love for music as an experience, not just an end product. As show time drew near, Manson left his perch at the controls and entered the performance space, explaining his vision and a few parameters for the evening’s presentation, specifically reminding attendees of the documentary aspect as he pointed to the various microphones strategically placed about the room. After his brief reminder of the rules for the night, he introduced the opener for the night, Zikey and The Condor.
These two young, talented lads, surprisingly, needed no time to warm up, as they jumped right in, unintimidated, displaying their chops on banjo and fiddle, respectively, laying out some impressive originals that had even the distinguished, and discerning audience members bobbing their heads. Of note was the fact that they incorporated tunes, both original and covered, which reflected their appreciation and respect for the generations of players who preceded their role in the new school. At the close of their set, they thanked the crowd and again thanked their patriarch, Manson, who, by their own admission, had produced their first album for free.
After a short intermission, Manson again returned to the stage and ushered in the main event of the night, Blake & Groves. At this point, instead of immediately starting up, both members took a little time to give their own personal history about the man at the board, expressing warm accounts of recording and sharing creative inspiration over years of interaction. The resounding applause that followed showed that those in attendance had gleaned an insightful passage into the nature of this man and his endeavor to foster music, not money.
Opening their set with Bill Monroe’s “Can’t You Hear Me Calling,” instant recognition and smiles could be seen throughout the room. Exchanging lines and taking their time showed that these two were here to play and by the focus of those seated, they were there to listen. Continuing with the traditional canon, The Carter Family’s “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” presented its tale of the loss of love and tragedy and these two did it justice every step of the way.
Before starting the next tune, Groves asked for a little audience participation in two forms. First, she revealed that the moniker of their current tour was the “Blue Grass Green Chilies Tour” and at all stops on the journey they had requested that their audiences yell out the best place for green chilies in their locale. New Mexicans aren’t shy about their chilie verde appreciation, so as one might expect, there were multiple shout outs, both congruous and opposing. Luckily no brawls broke out. The second request came in the form of a sing-along invitation. Although the title was not revealed, Groves assured the audience that they would know what to say when the time was right. “New Mexico,” a tune penned by Groves, is an easy-going number in structure, which gives way to the power of the vocal abilities of Blake as the softness of Groves provides balance, creating a moment that left these locals smiling, as they joined in on the chorus.
“Hey Porter,” a Blake original, with its high stepping pace, moved many in the crowd to dance as much as they could in their seats, and again showed Blake’s ability to conjure the old-time cornerstone emotion of great bluegrass, both in vocals and playing, as Groves matched note for note.
“Northern Lights” is a song Groves wrote about her first experience seeing this amazing phenomenon in her home state of Michigan as an adolescent. As she explains, this tune was originally composed as a reminder of how it made her feel to see such a sight, but since then, has taken on a broader meaning. A culmination of those experiences that move people viscerally. This lilting number delivered both in strum and story.
Moving through fifteen songs, the talents of these two artists was apparent from the start and did not let up. They are a perfect balance to each other, and their ability to modulate between fast tracks and slow ballads reflects their love of the genre, knowing the tunes, not just playing them. The tales that are woven between songs reveal a history that is genuine and make this partnership authentic, a demonstration that continues on off stage. As with any music, when a number is played with intimate appreciation, the songs almost sing themselves and seeing this duo bring the traditional to life reminds that this is a living language and whether new school or old school, grade “A” is the same.
Closing out the night, Blake & Groves welcomed Zikey and The Condor back to the stage for a shared instrumental breakdown that produced smiles amid the quartet. There were no missed strides or confusion, each stepping up in perfect time to present their contribution, rousing each other as the joyful tune swirled. In completion, the seat-anchored audience stood and gave the four players their just desserts.
Blake & Groves
Following The Kitchen Sink Studio gig, the group made their way south to the metropolitan city of Albuquerque for a private house concert. This sort of gig is often bypassed by many due to the perception that the magic is lost without a stage or production that a proper venue holds. It can be easily argued that the inception of the musical experience evolved from such surroundings as these and is what has been the elemental foundation for roots music like bluegrass. The familial space warmly invites the listener and the player in, while blurring the lines between the two, as would be the result of this very performance.
Arriving, the homeowner welcomed the two into his abode with refreshments and salutations. Examining the room, its three rows of chairs, empty couch, and standing room towards the back, Groves inquired as to how many he expected to attend, with the proprietor acknowledging that he had no idea and it may turn out to be, in fact, no one. Undaunted by this news, Groves retained her smile and, joined by Blake, retired to their chairs to tune and go over the evening’s set list. Mid-preparation, a tall, thin man, case in hand, entered and acknowledged the two seated. From their expression it was evident that they knew this newcomer. Ezra Bussmann was his name, and, opening his larger than normal hard case, mando and fiddle were his game, the two housed side by side in red velvet. When asked how these folks new each other, Groves replied that Bussmann was one of her favorite people to make music with and that his father was “one helluva mando builder.” It was easy to see that music was in this man’s blood and added an element that would make this night differ significantly from the studio performance.
As it turned out, this was not just a simple living room show, but rather a celebration of the 40th birthday of Matt, the man whose family had opened their house to friend and stranger alike for the special occasion. As time pressed on, slowly but surely, a consistent stream of people arrived, carrying adult elixirs, food, and in some cases children, and soon the gig space filled and then spilled over into the auxiliary area of the backyard, where additional amplification, fire pit, and quintessential hay bales had been set up. Conversations could be easily overheard and it became obvious that many were strangers too each other, but were connected unknowingly by the man whose birthday was being celebrated.
Starting before sunset, the trio, Blake, Groves, and Bussmann, took to the head of the room and, in classic humility and mannered address, thanked Matt and his family for opening up their home and wished him “feliz cumpleanos” before getting started, just as the night before, with the invocation of Bill Monroe’s “Can’t You Hear Me Calling”. Also like the previous evening, recognition was instantaneous and quickly filled the few remaining seats and drove others to the standing room area. This version differed significantly, as the group, now three, provided extra room for the fiddler to stand out. The contingency of smokers and talkers graciously remained outside, enjoying the unseen performance from the backyard.
Using the set list produced from the Santa Fe performance as a framework, many of the tunes were repeated, but only in selection. The instrumental sections were extended and no one seemed hurried to get to the next piece. The contributions by Bussmann were tasteful and appropriate and demonstrated his discerning ear. The open conversation between the three even led to his taking turns at being a member of audience, enjoying the craft of his long-standing friends. It was refreshing to see that Blake & Groves didn’t rely on a canned experience when presenting their show. This was evident by their ability to shift to a looser format and execution. Although there was some overlap, many of the shared stories differed from the night prior. In keeping with the theme of their tour, they did however take the time to inquire as to the best green chilie location in the Duke City, again followed by a discorded response. The laid back atmosphere produced more conversation than one-sided accounts between the intimate setting of performer and listener, as the line of distinction disintegrated further.
Before closing out the set, Groves informed the audience that they would be returning for another and that for all the guests who had brought their own instruments, the opportunity for a friendly jam would close out the night. This declaration brought many of those who had been glued to their seats for the entirety of the set huge smiles.
With that, Blake took control of the vocal helm, and called out to the neighboring county with “Freeborn Man.” Lung-busting, extended voluminous vocals are the centerpiece of this tune and sets Blake in the light of more myth than man. By the response of the spectators, everyone was fully encapsulated in this moment of power and awe, which was accentuated by the close quarters.
Dissolving into the crowd, both Blake and Groves took time to catch up with many in attendance. One man claimed that he had been seeing the two of them perform for nearly twenty years and by his detailed recollection, the obviousness of his truth stunned the two in humility and appreciation. There were also others who had found their way and in one way or another were connected to these players independently, producing genuine surprise and exhilaration, like running into old friends on a random street in a forlorn town.
Satiated with refreshment, both physically and emotionally, the trio returned to the helm, delivering the continued conveyance of song and spirit, pulling again from their crafted canon and the old school textbook, including “Salt Creek,” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” At this point, this was a room of people enjoying company and any disassociation had been dissolved. This was not a one sided perception, as the band began to take requests, further cultivating the sense of musical family. Although not requested, the band led the room through the most well-known cover of the night, John Denver’s “Country Roads.” This brought everyone together, singing the chorus in rollicking unison. Covering Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” satiated many a Dead Head in the room. This final act transitioned effortlessly into the family jam, as cases were opened and all sorts of implements were tuned and prepared. At this point, the role of headliner shifted from Blake & Groves, sliding them into the participatory role, with the assembled crowd taking the lead, and reminding all of the great social power this music born from family picking event still carries to this day.
Photo Gallery – 11/18/16
Photo Gallery 11/19/16