The Auckland Bluegrass Club meets every second Wednesday of every month at the Cityside Church Arts Studio Collective, which is part of a church, in a sort of churchy room. Well, there are pews, sofas and chairs, biblical messages, books and artwork and posters, a small PA and no beer. You might say quaint. You might not.
It’s Wednesday night and people drift in and there should be more, but it’s folk and bluegrass and arenas are scarce unless you go to the Auckland Folk Festival which I did and saw You, Me, Everybody who teased us with a five song set and now they are on tour and we get more. Songs, not people.
Bluegrass is not about grass not being green. Grass is most often green and not on the other side but never blue. Unless you are a blue grass boy, which the fellows who played with Bill Monroe were. Bluegrass is Appalachian and European and Irish and English and the banjo came from Africa and it all mixed up in poverty in the hill country of Tennessee and Kentucky and all along the Appalachian spine. It’s high and lonesome and no electricity up there, mostly. That’s why bluegrass is acoustic, and because it’s cold in them thar hills, it’s also fast, and it’s competitive, pick out the pickers, improvise, jazz it up, choose your dance partner and dance and also swing, right across to Texas where Monroe meets Wills. And it’s also in Hamilton County which is not far from Ngaruawahia, which is where the brothers Frangos-Rhodes come from.
You, Me, Everybody is built around two precocious young men called Laurence and Sam, from the Frangos-Rhodes hyphenation. They went to school at home, and instead of truancy found fluency in the acoustic world. Guitar, mandolin, fiddle and banjo, there are no strings unattached from their sound of music. And there’s a little brother in the wings who was part of their previous, family band called RhodeWorks, which as we know when we drive are everywhere, because roads often don’t work here in paradise. Better to build a song than a road, tell a story, entertain. Somewhere along the potholed road, Laurence and Sam have teamed up with three veterans, far from ancient, but accomplished musicians in their own right, and thus You, Me, Everybody is a synthesis of precocious talent and established names in bluegrass and worthy of the moniker ‘supergroup’. Nate Torkington channels Earl Scruggs on banjo and was with the Pipi Pickers. James Geluk (Frank Burkitt) thumps the upright bass and Kim Bonnington (Kim and Dusty) adds depth and Alison Kraussian beauty on lead and harmonised vocals.
The boys can sing, but are occasionally understrength until embraced in harmony with Kim’s reach and power. It’s with their instruments that they express themselves with the most imagination and intricacy. It’s like seeing Page and Clapton in their teens starting to master their passion, but not yet, in bluegrass terms, as refined as Scruggs or Jerry Douglas or Tony Rice. Yet their moves still promote awe in the audience of older pickers who can only aspire. There’s no critic like a fellow traveller and the audience tonight is full if those who can just pick it. Genius, that is. Prodigy, that is. Potential, that is. And they write songs, Laurence mainly, but also Sam and Kim chime in, as does Nat, who provides the melodic leads, and sometimes they write together, and the songs are amazing, from softly strung ballads to high tension animal instrumentals, monkeys and squirrels darting this way and that in complement and competition, in duel and in breakdown. And tales of mayhem and murder and lost souls and executions and devils and whiskey, except they think the devil’s in the bottle and they’re wrong, it’s a genie, but they are only 19 at the most….. but for sure the genie comes out tonight, albeit after a slow start.
And so off we go, with the title track from the new album, “Southern Sky”, and the first set with mostly slower songs from the new album plus a sprinkling from last years EP, the one which catapulted them to attention as finalists in this years Tui awards. Too soon. Southern Sky (the album) is my pick. Not just southern skies, some western swing as Kim gets into the blame game with “You Do” and Sam slows down the album opener in which he is the perp in an epic song which reminds me of “Powderfinger” except Neil was the victim. What goes on in his mind? But it’s youth and wisdom combined.
I wonder how wisdom is dispensed in this band, but I suspect it’s both ways and all ways. The banter is a mutual sledge, laced with respect, but also the wonder in the eyes of the older musicians at the antics of youth without fear. Give it a go! There’s also care, and taking care, the sound is not rich tonight, it doesn’t reach out as it did at the festival, and the first set is sometimes tentative. ‘Do stop us if we get to slick’ jokes Nat, to relieve any tension. Because it’s alright, it’s not always 100 %, and it’s the underlying talent that pervades which is more important.
The second set starts with “The Devil in a Bottle of Whiskey”, a tune and a song straight out of the deep south, and then we segue into gospel where there “Ain’t no Grave” and then we’re “Back Again” with Laurence and the voice is stronger, in fact as the tempo quickens the band shrug off their torpor (far too strong a word, but it alliterates) and they tighten up. The faster they go, the better they are. And the slow ballad “Tears that You Cry” could be out of a kid’s milk carton.
Richard Burgess was on the “Wrong Side of the Law” way down south in Mangatapou in the 1860s and as a result of his mayhem and murder he stares at a noose and kisses the world goodbye . Kim Bonnington channels Alison Krauss but is far more ballsy as she begs us “Don’t Hide me Away”
There’s a “Stranger” from the EP and the the sun won’t shine, and finally, Laurence the luthier (saved that piece of news to the end, there’s only so much you can take) encores with “Me & My Guitar”
You, Me, Everybody. They’re on tour. Check them out. Buy the album, it’s a sensation. Check out the Frangos-Rhodes boys, they have the world on their string.
Set List A
- Southern Sky
- On the Road ( Kim)
- Gone So Long
- You Do
- Without A Fight
- Watch ‘em Go
- Walk With Me
- Brush Monkey
- Pretty Blackbird
- Give It Time
Set List B
- Devil in a Bottle of Whiskey
- Ain’t No Grave
- Back Again
- Tears That You Cry
- How Many Squirrels
- Big Road Blues
- Wrong Side of the Law
- Don’t Hide Me Away
- Sun Won’t Shine
- Me & My Guitar
Radio 13 thanks and credits Trevor Villers for all the images in this review.