Adam Phillips’ adventuresome and ear-friendly Folk Orchestra of Santa Barbara has, in its short life span, become something of a cherished musical institution in these parts.
Multi-instrumentalist and fine singer Phillips conjures up programs built around specific themes, and arranges music for his game and gifted orchestral-plus ensemble. Rarely has a theme had such a serendipitous civic timing as last weekend’s bluegrass program, at the Presidio Chapel on Saturday night and Casa de la Guerra on Sunday afternoon — the same weekend that the honorable hootenanny of the Old-Time Fiddler Festival was celebrating its whopping 50th anniversary out at Goleta’s Stow House on Saturday.
Bluegrass purists and persnickety types might not have entirely approved of Phillips’ approach to bluegrass, which wrapped the normally taut and lean-machined sound of bluegrass favorites by Bill Monroe and others in the fattened-up sound of multiple fiddlers fiddling. But impurists among us were roundly entertained, especially in the magical ambience of the Presidio Chapel with the nearly full moon outside.
Things opened auspiciously with a revived anthem, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” brought into the public ear and sphere by Ralph Stanley in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou. Monroe’s “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz” had an Italian spin put on its mandolin introduction by Josh Jenkins and “Wayfaring Stranger” shifted from perky rhythmic thrust to moody waltz time and back. Phillips’ originals “Bella Vista” and “Storm ” lent the leader’s creative voice to the evening. “I’ll Fly Away” tethered the program to the strong undertow of gospel music in this genre, as in so many noteworthy American musical avenues.
In the second set, Phillips got his clawhammer banjo mojo working on “Shady Grove” and flexed his handsome, well-honed pipes on a moving rendering of “Shenandoah,” a timeless classic which has been dignified by the jazz-aligned likes of Keith Jarrett and Bill Frisell in recent years. Monroe’s “Jerusalem Ridge ” brought the chugging dynamics of bluegrass gumption into play, and fairly new orchestra member Brian Mann, Santa Barbara’s star squeezeboxer, proved that “bluegrass accordion” is no oxymoron.
While chalking up another one in the FOSB’s young but strongly ongoing legacy, this concert also beautifully capped off the weekend that bluegrass had its day at historic houses and properties in Goleta and downtown Santa Barbara for a weekend. A hip harmonic convergence, perhaps?