The Aladdin Theater was full of lucky concertgoers Thursday night. They enjoyed three great acts, all of which showcased individual styles. Additionally, there was a great deal of collaboration between various acts, making for a dynamic and unique show.
The first act, Seattle-based folk combo Cahelan and Eli, started the night off with a soulful, ballad-infused folk set that featured songs from their new album, “I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands.” The duo, featuring Cahelan Morrison on guitar and Eli West on banjo and mandolin, crafted a huge sound for just two musicians by relying heavily on their tight vocal harmonies, which pervaded the majority of the set. Their vocal mastery came to a climax toward the end of their set when they sang a beautiful a capella piece that nearly left the crowd speechless (people ended up standing, clapping, and hollering, but not after a minute of stunned silence). The serene folk music produced by Cahelen and Eli was a perfect contrast to the speedy bluegrass the audience would hear next.
Colorado’s Hot Rize is a fascinating band to listen to because their repertoire includes old-fashioned bluegrass while also bringing new musical interpretations to the table. In a time when many string bands are playing with a very loose definition of bluegrass (much like Callahan and Eli), it can be hard to locate touring acts that still adhere to the discipline and technicality deeply rooted in the bluegrass tradition.
At the beginning of their career in 1978, Hot Rize’s music choices seemed new and different, but compared to the highly experimental, fusion-style string music that is so popular today, they are fairly conservative. Steve Martin commented on the catalytic nature of Hot Rize by saying, “Hot Rize is the great modern bluegrass band. They’re the connective tissue that links the great founders of bluegrass with the modern tradition.” Ben Kauffmann of Yonder Mountain String Band, arguably the most recognized contemporary string band, gave Hot Rize this praise: “If it wasn’t for Hot Rize, we couldn’t do what we do.”
Founded in Boulder, Colorado, Hot Rize quickly gained recognition in the bluegrass scene as an act to watch out for. After their original bassist, Charles Sawtelle, passed away from Leukemia on March 20, 1999, Hot Rize stopped touring and recording. They reunited at Oregon’s own inaugural North West String Summit in 2002 with their current lineup: Tim O’Brien on mandolin and fiddle, Pete Wernick on banjo, Nick Forster on bass, and Bryan Sutton on guitar.
Since their reunion, Hot Rize has toured extensively and done a great deal of collaborative work, but just this year they released their first studio album, “When I’m Free,” in twenty three years. Their new work shuns the standard studio recording technique of playing each instrument individually, in favor of recording the tracks live, keeping the album’s sound true to the high-energy chemistry they bring to the stage.
Hot Rize came out pickin’ hard, showcasing the virtuosity of each member, before moving into a ballad from their new album called “You Were On My Mind This Morning.” This gem of a song involved plucking not only the strings on the instruments, but the heart strings of every person in the room.
Returning to a more traditional, foot-stomping sound, they played an instrumental piece called “Sky Rider” that allowed Wernick to really show his chops on banjo. They continued playing through their newer, emotive tunes from “When I’m Free,” which included such highlights as “Come Away,” and “Western Skies.” “Western Skies” is an uplifting song about finding new beginnings in life, using the metaphor of being in bad weather in the mountains, hoping to get to get to some sunlight. Forster joked that we Portlanders might not be able to relate to the lyrical content. Ha!
Hot Rize took a set break, but the entertainment did not stop. Red Knuckles and The Trailblazers, a band that travels with Hot Rize since they met at the Eat Café in Montana, took the stage and wowed the crowd with their highly stylized, original brand of showmanship. They play early 50’s style country (think Hank Williams II) featuring classic steel guitar, choreographed dances, and silly getups including cowboy hats, sunglasses, fringed jackets, and lots of sequins. Despite their goofy attire and demeanor, the boys really can play up a storm, and they got the house rockin’ at least as hard as Hot Rize. To wrap up their set, they brought Cahelan and Eli back out (dressed in cowboy hats and sunglasses, of course) and closed with the country classic, “It’s the Natural Thing To Do.”
Having played most of their new album in their first set, Hot Rize returned to the stage to lay down some classics, several of which featured Cahalen and Eli. They cited Doc Watson as a great inspiration, and even referred to him as a God (which is not an uncommon thing to hear amongst the bluegrass crowd). To pay him tribute, they closed with two classics by Watson, “Winter’s Night,” and the forever crowd-pleasing “Shady Grove.”
The Aladdin was alive with music Thursday night, made by both young and old. Seeing and hearing where this great American tradition came from, where it is, and where it is going, all in one sitting, was an amazing experience.