Doin’ it up right, playing all night long
Tryin’ to think of something else to make a bluegrass song
You can hear it on the radio and also on TV
As far as music is concerned, there’s nothin’ else for me.
– “Blue Grass Style” – Vern & Ray -> Laurie & Kathy
In November, 2013, Travers Chandler brought his brand of “bark left on” traditional bluegrass to the Bay Area — for two (2!) dates. He played one show in a SF bar with lousy sound, splitting the bill with a local band, then was featured at a Redwood Bluegrass Associates concert in Mountain View.
He was accompanied by two members of his band — banjo picker Hunter Webber and bassist/vocalist Steve Block — along with Bay Area musicians Annie Staninec (fiddle) and David Thom (guitar, vocals). Travers’ sizzling old-school style of mandolin playing and his powerhouse vocals led the group through a terrific collection of songs from the likes of Red Allen, Buzz Busby, Charlie Moore, and other less familiar bluegrass pioneers.
It was a great show, full of fire and drive and passion and humor, and refreshing to experience Travers’ philosophy that interpreting the classics, especially ones that are not part of a typical jam, is an important and worthwhile aspect of contemporary bluegrass. There were very few “originals,” but he has an original approach to the music.
Travers gave lots of room to Annie and Hunter, had Steve do a couple songs, sang some killer duets with David, and welcomed guests like Paul Shelasky (twin fiddle) and Kathy Kallick (soulful duet on “Could You Love Me One More Time”) to the band. But Travers’ playing and singing dominated the proceedings, and it had been a while since we’ve seen such a force of nature on a Bay Area stage.
The fact that he showed up at all was astounding.
His other west coast gigs fell through, so the trip to the Bay Area was destined to lose money. This replicated a scenario that seems to happen annually: a band based in the east is booked for a RBA concert, but they cancel (sometimes without much notice) because there are not enough additional gigs to make the trip worthwhile. RBA has to scramble for a replacement group, the audience is deprived of seeing a fine band from the heartland, and the group misses out of making inroads in California.
But Travers didn’t want to cancel. He contacted Annie and David to play with him, found out Steve had a business trip out here anyway, and waited for Hunter to drive from Maine, about 900 miles from Travers’ home in Taylorsville, NC. Then Travers, his wife, and Hunter loaded instruments and a full cooler into their small car and … drove(!) … 2700 miles(!) from Taylorsville to the Bay Area. They made it just in time to play the San Francisco gig, slept in beds for the first time in several nights, and then played the fabulous show for RBA. They had to hit the road immediately (without another night in a bed) following the Saturday night concert, as Travers was due back in North Carolina on Tuesday so he could go to his day job … as a trucker! They did a second non-stop cross-country drive, and got to North Carolina in time for the work that supports their musical pursuits.
When you look up “dedicated” in the bluegrass dictionary, there’s gotta be a photo of Travers Chandler & Avery County.
Of course, it’s always been hard for west coast bands to tour on the east coast and vice versa, but the situation has gotten significantly worse in the last few years — and is rapidly becoming a festivals-or-nothing situation. Much as I love a good bluegrass festival, I think musicians become bands and bands become forces of nature by playing a series of club dates rather than the occasional festival. And, of course, it’s quite difficult to become a festival-level act without paying significant dues at the club level. But how do bands become festival-level acts without these club level opportunities? Mostly by relying on gimmicks or schtick or association with Big Biscuits or a bunch of lucky breaks. Just check out the line-up of most festivals happening on dates other than Father’s Day weekend.
Travers Chandler’s music is gimmick-free and he hasn’t gotten any of those breaks. He’s paid his dues in several bands, including three years with Danny Paisley (remember him at Grass Valley?), is writing a biography of the late Charlie Moore, and fans the traditional bluegrass flames whenever he performs. The fact that he DROVE across the country to play two gigs, one of which paid a pittance, is remarkable — as was the quality of his performances.
It will come as no surprise that the RBA show was not sold out; such is the reality when relatively unknown bands are featured. I’m guessing that most of the 150 folks who paid their hard-earned $20 were delighted with the concert, and will now make a point of going to see the band if/when they’re back this way. And I’m sorry for those who passed up the opportunity to attend what turned out to be a memorable event.
RBA is committed to presenting as many quality bands who are not yet well-known as possible, and has been doing do for more than 20 years. But these shows — and these musicians — need community support. I go along with Tom Paxton, who, after thanking the audience for attending his concert, often admonishes them to make their next show one with an unfamiliar performer. That’s what helps to keep the music growing, and what can yield unexpected delights for the slightly-adventurous concert-goer.
I humbly suggest that concert and club dates are well worth your attendance, and that the music you experience at them can be far more powerful than at festivals.
But I also suggest to east coast festival presenters that they occasionally book a west coast band, and to west coast festival presenters that they consider including Travers Chandler & Avery County — for a fee that makes alternate transportation possible. They’re a top-notch traditional-based bluegrass band with some individual twists and a unique approach who put on an entertaining show. And they are dedicated to the music.
Peter Thompson currently produces & hosts a bluegrass radio show, helps present a bluegrass concert series, books a bluegrass band, and emcees bluegrass concerts, but no longer has to serve as the nanny for a bluegrass band. Still dedicated, though.