Cornmeal heads up an evening of bluegrass in Bloomington


Cornmeal (with Elephant Revival and The Giving Tree Band)

The Bluebird Nightclub

Bloomington, IN

September 17, 2011


The last time Cornmeal rolled their big black bus through Indiana for a show was April of this year, and folks seemed to be biting at the bit to get another taste of the saucy Chicago jamgrass band. With the excitement of special guests Elephant Revival and The Giving Tree Band, the buzz grew to a fairly stout reverberation of enthusiasm as Honest Tune announced their first ever of the simulcast for the evening. The avidity of the crowd mingling outside the Bluebird matched those who had wandered inside to meet the simulcast crew of Rex-A-Vision and MyTallTripod and gaze in wonderment at their shadows feeding onto the stream being broadcast. Herm Productions was also on site bringing in extra lighting gear for the show. cornmeal_er_gtb_091711-10.jpg

Elephant Revival last played Indianapolis in May at The Irving Theatre, and would be taking the stage first. The band hales from Nederland, Colorado, and has shared the stage with their native comrades Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band and the String Cheese Incident. In turn, they have become one of the most up-and-coming string bands of the day.

The eclectic quintet are dubbed as “Transcendental Folk” and take string music far from the prototypical jamgrass by putting a spin on bluegrass that is boundless, mystical and spiritual. Consisting of Bonnie Paine (vocals, washboard, djembe, musical saw), Sage Cook (electric banjo/guitar, acoustic guitar, mandolin, viola, vocals), Dango Rose (double-bass, mandolin, banjo, vocals), Daniel Rodriguez (acoustic guitar, electric banjo/guitar, vocals) and Bridget Law (fiddle and vocals), the sound is best heard in the deep rich layers of harmony that cohabitate this neo-acoustic five-piece set.

It is within those vocal and instrumental harmonies that one finds himself wrapped in a bed of softness and eventually spun through upbeat rhythms of fabulous folk tunes. ER opened with “Sing to the Mountain,” the tessitura of the piece dripping like warm honey with Bonnie and Rodriguez’s vocals imbued by Bridgett’s fiddle that lifted through the night. The warm timbre of Cook and Bridget’s vocals on “Down to the Sea” filled the mind of a love story bound from a small town to end at the sea.

The instrumental “Lexington” showcased Bridget’s fiddle work and Bonnie’s saturation of rhythmic washboard pellets, and gave way to the band thanking Cornmeal for having them along to play at the Bluebird. They continued their set with “Echoes Rise,” a tune written in Montana wherein Bonnie’s mezzo-soprano wove an enchanting melody as a solo from Rodriguez delaminated the Russian rhythm of Rose’s bass riffs. All of this was the perfect way to birth what would be an exceptional evening. cornmeal_er_gtb_091711-3.jpg

The greenest band in the land, The Giving Tree Band, took the stage just as Elephant Revival strummed and bowed its last note. Brothers Todd and Erik Frink decided to start a band in 2004, adding Phil Roach (Violin), Erik Norman (mandolin), Scott Woods (slide), Justin Forsythe (drums) and Patrick Burke (bass). The Chicago bluegrass act got the crowd moving with several upbeat numbers that left both audience member and musician jumping and dancing on the floor and stage, respectively. They kicked off the night with “Red Leaves,” a tune that had a Bob Dylan feel to the vocals, and as the set progressed their groove proved to be the lubrication that the Bluebird gatherers needed: a boogie bone warming up if you will. Next up, the main event…Cornmeal.

Cornmeal began their portion of the evening trailblazing with “Run Away and Hide.” Fiddler Allie Kral immediately took to the shredding of which few are capable, while drummer John-Paul fired off precise beats in rapid succession only to have brother, Kris Nowak, layer in the grooviest guitar licks a bluegrass picker can lay down. “Flash fingers” Wavy Dave Burlingame and Chris Gangi topped off the majestic sound through their masterful banjo and bass work. cornmeal_er_gtb_091711-22.jpgAs the tune wound down, a psychedelic tease-jam of fiddle and a banjo-driven reggae beat hooked the crowd into the groove. “I Need a Little Help,” a more traditional bluegrass tune, had Kris Nowak crooning how he “needs a little help carrying this burden.” The crowd happily obliged by dancing into a maddening mass of Cheshire smiles.

Wavy Dave followed with a fiercely charged “Stand Up” that had everyone in the Bloomington gathering shouting the chorus back at him, jumping as they shouted “stand up.” Speaking of fans, the street team of Cornstalkers came prepared for the gig by bringing in a barrage of faces — of friends who could not make it out — on sticks, and took to dancing on their brethren’s behalf, creating gratitude-filled smiles on the band members’ faces. Continuing the set with “Shelter,” Wavy seemed to be serenading the crowd with the lyrics, “It’s so nice to be here dancing with all my friends, it’s so nice to see you smiling there again.” Having been such a long time since they played at the Bluebird, the warmth from the band could be felt.

Continuous weaves of musical layers provided soft, inviting melodies that embraced the intimate and small bar. The soft subtle strings eventually yielded to a dramatic “Better Off This Way” with Kris back on lead vocals and Kral’s fiddle creating a haunting melody that led the band into a long progressive psychedelic jam. The jam left each member in a seeming feast to feed off of one another, though there was no stepping on any toes and the tight unit pulled it off without a hitch.

cornmeal_er_gtb_091711-27.jpg“Drinking Away the Memory of You,” a fast paced number that continued to challenge the crowd’s ability to keep up, led into a phenomenal “Feet on the Ground” that brought out Elephant Revival’s Bonnie Paige. Subsequently, Paine’s band mate, Bridget Lawless, joined the stage for “River Gap,” and brought Allie Kral to a point of fist-pumping dance moves brought about by Bridget’s fiery play, perhaps the best solo of the entire night. As the Elephant Revival girl-section left the stage, Cornmeal gave the crowd a breather with a slow take on Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” before going into “Jenny In The Middle,” and closing the set with a heavy hitting “Black Smoke Rising.”

As the band came back for encore, bassist Chris Gangi asked for the aforementioned Cornstalker face pictures to take up on stage and gave a shout out to the folks who weren’t there that Saturday night. Allie, being the amazing sweet person she is, took one of the photos and placed it in front of her face as she bowed  — as one of the Cornstalkers — the “Girl with the Short Brown Hair” encore. A night with Cornmeal at the Bluebird is one of the most intimate evenings you could spend with one of the finest bluegrass bands on the circuit today. Between Cornmeal, the amazing quintet of Elephant Revival, and The Giving Tree Band, it was quite the spectacular way to spend a Saturday night.

Click the thumbnail for photos From the Show by Amber Jennings