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PSYCHOGRASS - Psychograss Sharpens Its Blade on Tradition, review (Chgo Trib, Mar 13, 1999)

Chicago Tribune

Monday, March 13, 1999

Arts Watch


Bluegrass Review

Psychograss Sharpens Its Blade on Tradition

By David Royko

Special to the Tribune

The quintet that fanned across the stage of the Old Town School of

Folk Music Friday night was pure, traditional bluegrass in

instrumentation: mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar and bass. Any

resemblance to Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys ended there, however, as

this all-star line-up named Psychograss proceeded to twist and spin the

threads of basic bluegrass sounds into a multicolored musical fabric as

varied as the tie-dyed t-shirts covering the backs of the numerous

Deadheads in attendance.

And it is also a good bet that Bill Monroe never played Jimi

Hendrix's "Third Stone From The Sun."

Each member of Psychograss maintains a thriving solo career, which

means that opportunities to hear them together are scarce. At the core

of this collective are three alumni of the David Grisman Quintet:

mandolinist Mike Marshall, violinist Darol Anger and bassist Todd

Phillips, who have since collaborated in various other groups.

Banjoist Tony Trischka and guitarist David Grier also have played

together in a number of ensembles, such as the short-lived but

spectacular "Big Dogs."

All of these groups revel in experimenting with established forms,

while always maintaining ties to the traditional models through an

allegiance to acoustic instruments, and by exercising unfailing taste

even while striking out on the most florid improvisational flights.

Those qualities are at the center of the Psychograss sound.

Even when the group performed the bluegrass standard "Nine Pound

Hammer," Trischka, in a move typical of the banjo player who took Bela

Fleck under his avant garde wing in the 1970s, launched his solo by

steering far from the tune's tonal center before ultimately resolving

his improvisation with a flourish of triplets.

Grier's elastic rhythmic and harmonic sense resulted in solos that

twisted around the ensemble like a rubber band, expanding beyond bar-

lines and keys only to snap back at the perfect moment to dramatic


The Darol Anger-Mike Marshall Band took over for the second half of

the evening's double bill. Playing material from their 1999 CD, "Jam,"

as well as new material, the quartet succeeded in blending acoustic

strings with electric bass and drums. Drummer Aaron Johnston's ability

to maintain a perfect, pulsing rhythmic anchor without cluttering the

open string textures is as rare as it was welcome, and bass guitarist

Derek Jones was a true musical partner.

Marshall--switching between mandolin, guitar and mando-cello--and

Anger were afforded even more opportunities to stretch out in this

setting, jamming through the challenging structures of their original

tunes with almost giddy creativity.

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