Professors of Bluegrass show

The Professors of Bluegrass brought Americana classics to Brandeis.

Feb. 15, 2011

For most students on campus, the Super Mash Bros. concert was the big musical event of the weekend. However, two other bands also performed on Saturday night, and their sets proved to be both unique and extremely enjoyable experiences, even though no laptops were involved.The Professors of Bluegrass is a group from Yale University that performs old-time American country, gospel and bluegrass music. Originally formed in 1990, the group has gone through three incarnations thus far as university faculty came and left.

The current members are mandolin player Craig Harwood, guitarist and lead singer Sten Havumaki, banjo player Oscar Hills, fiddler and vocalist Katie Scharf, fiddler Matt Smith and bassist and founding member Peter Salovey. Originally, only members of Yale’s Psychology department played in the band, but the Professors of Bluegrass has expanded to include members from many areas of study in addition to alumni and university friends.

Bluegrass is often thought of as country music’s more hickish cousin by young people who are used to listening to electronically rendered songs or full-band accompaniments. However, the genre is really likable, particularly when experienced live. I couldn’t help but get into the spirit of the evening. The grins of the band members were contagious, and the Professors created an informal, friendly atmosphere. The whoops of delight from audience members added to the sense that everyone was there to have some fun.

However, the band members didn’t let themselves get too comfortable despite this easygoing atmosphere. Throughout the evening, I was continually impressed by how fast and deftly all six members played. Bluegrass-styled songs involve lots of finger picking, as opposed to simple strumming. This is where the “plunking” sound the genre is known for comes from. This technique, combined with the swift chord changes and the fast tempo of the songs, requires bluegrass players to be extremely adept at their instruments.

The visual spectacle of the players, their fingers moving up and down the necks of their instruments in time with the beat, was almost as engrossing as the music. All of the Professors soloed during the performance, and Harwood, Hills and Scharf were featured in nearly every song.

After the Professors of Bluegrass’ hour-long performance, Big Chimney, a Washington D.C.-based blues, country and bluegrass group, performed. Big Chimney played more contemporary songs, including Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” with a country twist.

This second band has five members: bassist Jeremy Middleton; mandolin player John Seebach; dobro player Alex Sens; guitarist Avril Smith; and fiddler Katie Scharf, who is a member of Professors of Bluegrass as well.

Big Chimney’s style was slightly calmer than that of the Professors’. The band played more ballads and folk songs and sang three-part harmonies provided by Seebach, Smith and Scharf in most of their numbers. Big Chimney also substituted a dobro for a banjo, which provided a less-twangy sound.

One of the most enthralling parts of the concert was the instruments themselves. Mandolins, fiddles, banjos and dobros are not typically used in today’s pop or rock music, though acts like Mumford and Sons and Fleet Foxes have brought folk back to many radio stations.

The dobro, or resonator guitar, was a particularly fascinating element of Big Chimney’s performance. It is louder than the average guitar and has a distinctive country and blues sound.

Shaped like a guitar, it is balanced on the player’s lap and played with the opening facing up, rather than out. The opening is covered with a circular aluminum plate, often with designs cut into it. There are also two smaller holes on either side of the neck of the guitar. Sens used metal picks attached to his first three fingers to pluck the strings and wore a metal tube over the ring finger of his other hand, which he slid up and down the neck of the guitar.

Along with its Prince number, the band also performed songs by Dolly Parton, Tom Waits and the Allman Brothers. Five of the songs can be found on Big Chimney’s self-titled EP.

After Big Chimney’s set, both bands performed several songs together. They were joined in this finale performance by Yoni Battat ’13 on the fiddle. These songs showcased how good a large bluegrass band can sound together, with multiple singers and many different stringed instruments all combining to create an energetic, down-home sound.

I found the bluegrass concert entertaining, and the musical talent of the bands far exceeds a lot of the Top 40 music I hear at a typical college party. I recommend you listen to some of these older tunes, as well as looking into contemporary folk and bluegrass bands such as Iron Horse, Della Mae, Dan Bern and Allison Krauss. You may be surprised by what you hear.

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