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Music Review: Reunited bluegrass band wows fans

Saturday, May 25, 2002

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Old and in the way? Hardly.

Twenty-nine years after the casual formation of the most celebrated pickup band in bluegrass history, reunited members of Old and In the Way packed Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall Thursday to raise money for another traditional music legend, Calliope: The Pittsburgh Folk Music Society .

The band started in 1973 as a labor-of-love side project for the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia (banjo) and his mandolin-playing friend, David Grisman. They called up Vassar Clements, a Bill Monroe protege who made fiddle history on The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's all-star album, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." The Blue Grass Boys' Peter Rowan joined in on guitar, and jazzman John Kahn plucked bass fiddle. The lineup recorded only twice and performed just 18 dates, but it appealed to hippies and traditionalists alike.

Thursday's reunion, instigated at least in part by an invitation from Calliope, spotlighted Old and In the Way founders Grisman, Clements and Rowan. Session five-string picker Herb Pedersen sat in for Garcia, who died in 1995, and Bryn Bright of the Two High String Band played bass.

The enthusiastic audience ranged from teen-age Deadheads in tie-dye to retirees in slacks and skirts. It was a melting pot of supporters of a living tradition, one that Calliope board president Rick Landesberg described during introductions as "music that you play instead of buy."

The set list stretched from the early days of bluegrass to Old and In the Way classics to fresh material newly recorded on a 14-song Old album, which Grisman said should be released this year.

Bright plucked a gentle bass line on a traditional interpretation of The Platters' "The Great Pretender," while Pedersen, Grisman and Rowan found a comfortable vocal harmony.

Expressionless and barely tapping a foot, Clements pushed his fiddle toward the mike for a breakneck version of Jimmie Rodgers' "Muleskinner Blues," a song equally associated with Monroe, who made it famous, and Garcia, whose work with Old and In the Way introduced it to a new generation. Clements sawed the song for both.

Grisman introduced "Lonesome Fiddler Blues" as "a Vassar composition that continues to have broad implications for bluegrass music."

Clements laughed shyly and turned his head, before ripping though the piece with his trademark whiny fiddle voice, breaking sharply on the song's big musical hook.

In a rare vocal lead, Pedersen sang The Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" while Rowan's rock-steady chording laid a foundation for some impressive improvisation. "Lost," an edgy old Buzz Busby A-side, segued into a gospel tune that ended the first set.

Twenty minutes later, the band returned with John Hartford's "Good Old Boys," a few fun covers and a Clements composition from the new album that is so fresh, he said, "I've only played it three times and it don't even have a name yet. Anybody have any ideas, let me know."

The song is a thumping, instrumental breakdown, reminiscent of the work he did as the Blue Grass Boys' teen prodigy.

Rowan led the group through the Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman," two Country Gentlemen songs and his "The Meadow Green," Grisman cracking that they were "sending it out to Spudboy Garcia."

The crowd remained standing through the encore, Rowan's Old and In the Way classic, "Midnight Moonlight."

Grisman couldn't have been more wrong a quarter century ago when he wrote the band's title song: "Old and turning gray / Youth will fade away / They'll never care about you / 'Cause you're old and in the way."

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