My first exposure to Jerry Douglas live was a series of concerts T-Bone Burnett produced at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica in the mid 1990s. The shows featured a who’s who of American roots music, including the two other rising stars of the Nashville Renaissance, fiddler Mark O’Connor and bassist Edgar Meyer. Even in that sacrosanct musical community, Douglas’s dobro skills were breathtaking. In hindsight, these performances may not have been the best introduction to the Douglas who composes and records, though. The Douglas who took the Lobero stage on Thursday night was very much a studio composer, and his frenetically fused genres came off sounding more like a Stanley Clarke jazz tribute band than a Ralph Stanley hoedown.
“This isn’t your father’s bluegrass,” Douglas averred to the crowd late in the concert. A third of that crowd agreed by leaving well before the encore, though true fans stayed rapt for about 15 songs. Douglas opened with three compositions of sophisticated music theory ideas and turn-taking solos, and sealed the deal on the fourth song, which he admitted was “A Remark You Made,” off Weather Report’s seminal 1970s fusion manifesto, Heavy Weather.
But it would be false-hearted to deny that moments of great beauty occurred. Douglas made the dobro scream like a rocker and cascade like, well, a slide guitar. His backing band was session-tight, too. The sweetest sound emerged when fiddler Luke Bulla wowed acolytes and newbies alike with a soul-baring version of “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” while Douglas’s “Randy Lynn Rag” was both dulcet and complex.
In other words, when the music broke free from the man’s need to impress, it struck straight into your heart. Otherwise it merely dazzled. And, though brilliant, I couldn’t help but think of the short shelf life of jazz-fusion compared to the eternalness of folk music. Douglas is right; what he’s playing is not my father’s bluegrass. But built this baroque and show-offy way, I doubt it will ever be my son’s, either.