I had an utterly divine evening this past Saturday with my friend Sam at a bluegrass concert in Beijing. The Redbucks got together in Beijing, certainly the capital of authentic bluegrass sound in the Far East, in 2008 and have been a hit (as far as I can tell) ever since. They played a gig at a little venue in one of my favorite hutong alleyways, and it was extra special because it was their vocalist’s last show before she leaves China on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Her name is Christine, but her stage name is Daisy Sweetgrass, and she has a gorgeous voice, perfect for singing bluegrass songs. That night there were four members on stage, though usually there are six. Besides Daisy/Christine, that night there was Amy the whiskey-loving fiddle player, Luke who played banjo and various guitars and shared vocal duties and Chris the mostly silent guitar and mandolin player. They sat in a little arch/semi circle not unlike the way that the Magnetic Fields always perform, and Christine even directed the spectators in the first four or so rows to sit down so that the people in the back could see more clearly, reminiscent of what Khaela Maricich of the Blow did at her Wellesley show my first year…

The band played a fairly even split of their original songs, which have the neo-bluegrass flavor of bands like Nickel Creek, and both contemporary and traditional covers of bluegrass ‘classics.’ I am a scattershot bluegrass fiend, which is to say that the artists I love, such as Gillian Welch, Chris Thile, and Elizabeth Cotten, I love to death, but there are enormous gaps in my knowledge of traditional music, simply because there is so much to take in, and much of it still isn’t catalogued/organized/discovered/etc. Their own songs were all good — tight melodies, beautiful harmonies from Christine and Luke’s voices, clever and/or touching lyrics. But as is the case with a lot of neo-bluegrass, it’s hard to hear the history in a contemporary composition. To me at least, the beauty of a song like “I’ll Fly Away” or “Barbara Allen” is the various renditions you have heard of it and different interpretations that form the backbone of a genre like true folk and bluegrass music. On the other hand, maybe it is the quality of some of the original compositions. The music of Gillian Welch for example, has that venerable sound to it. Songs like “Orphan Girl” sound like they have been floating around Appalachia for scores of generations even when they are written by a woman who grew up the child of variety-show performers in Los Angeles. There are certain Redbucks songs that have that patina on them already — “The Wedding Cake Song” comes to mind — but others, not that they fall flat, but they lack that aged quality that sets great songs apart.

Where I thought the Redbucks really excelled was in their interpretation of both classic and contemporary bluegrass and Americana tunes. They covered two Gillian Welch songs over the course of the night — “Look At Miss Ohio” and “Tear My Stillhouse Down” — which immediately elevated them to demigod status in my heart, and another tune, the traditional “I’ll Fly Away” that is sung by Ms. Welch and Alison Krauss on the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Besides the songs of the bluegrass-revival movement, they also peppered their set with old drinking and journeying songs, including an adorable little ditty about rye whiskey that made me miss it even more (Beijing has not found a rye importer yet, based upon my admittedly-limited questioning of the bartenders here. A Canadian Club Manhattan really just is not the same thing, though). And to their eternal credit, they included a version of the Elizabeth Cotten classic “Freight Train” near the end of their second set. For those of you who don’t know, Elizabeth Cotten played left-handed guitar and banjo without bothering to flip it over so that the tuning was the same as well. She worked as a maid and domestic most of her adult life before being ‘discovered’ by the Seeger family in the 1960s and becoming a huge part of the Folk Revival. And finally, to close out the night, Christine introduced herself as a total shiksa goddess and the band struck up what else but Hava Nagila. She jumped into the audience, we all danced together, and she even shattered a wineglass (“I’ve always wanted to do that”) on stage at the end. It was the perfect end to an incongruous yet completely comforting night of Americana in the Far East.

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