News and notes from Fredericksburg's entertainment scene
SOUNDS: The Sound of a Life Well-Played
BY JONAS BEALS / THE FREE LANCE-STAR
There was a moment during Tuesday’s Mike Auldridge tribute concert at The Birchmere when four Dobros were struck simultaneously mid-song by four masters of the instrument.
The sound started out as a jolt of chaos, like someone pouring a box of marbles into an open grand piano. But within one second, that tinny jangle bent into a beautiful gospel chorus. One second later it settled into an insistent, angelic sigh. Then it was gone, and each Dobro wove its way back into the song from whence it came.
It was a spontaneous sound—a momentary epiphany in the midst of an otherwise stellar evening of music. It was the sort of moment that made Auldridge, who died in December, a legend in the music world and a transcendent figure in bluegrass.
The Dobro—an acoustic, resophonic guitar played with a slide—is usually associated with bluegrass music these days, although it’s fairly rare even in that setting. The fact that anyone plays it at all these days is a testament to Auldridge, who gained fame with The Seldom Scene and made the instrument too beautiful to ignore.
You might not realize it, but you are living in the golden age of the Dobro. Some instruments seem to have their moments—saxophones in the ’30s and ’40s, electric guitars in the ’60s, synthesizers in the ’70s and ’80s—and Dobros have been shining bright for more than a decade now. Few instruments can deliver the emotional punch a Dobro provides, with its constantly bending blue notes and an uncanny ability to both mimic and enhance a person’s voice. Alison Krauss, perhaps the greatest pop singer we have, has done some of her best work alongside the Dobro of Jerry Douglas.
Douglas, an Auldridge disciple, led the tribute to his musical hero at The Birchmere, a venue in Alexandria that owes its existence, in part, to the musical innovations and drawing power of Auldridge.
Over the course of nearly four hours, about two dozen regional and national bluegrass and folk legends played for the spirit of their friend and inspiration, and there was always at least one Dobro on stage. Douglas, Rob Ickes, Sally Van Meter, Fred Travers and Jay Starling took turns pulling cries and wails out of one of the few instruments capable of expressing loss in a human tone.
As tear-jerking as the Dobro can be in capable hands, it can also turn into a fireball of manual dexterity, spitting out notes like a flamethrower. Douglas is, perhaps, the best to ever pick a Dobro—he’s Charlie Parker to Auldridge’s Lester Young—and it was hard to resist gasping at the musical turns he navigated.
But each Dobro player had moments just as compelling, whether they were underlining a forlorn vocal or popping up to land stinging jabs between fiddle runs and guitar breaks.
The full power of the Dobro was realized in the hands of Auldridge, himself a student of bluegrass Dobro pioneer Josh Graves. Others have taken those advances and built their own styles and careers, adding links to the chain of influence that continues to grow.
On Tuesday, five Auldridge Dobro disciples faced loss and their own inevitable mortality. Each of them did their best to channel their hero, using the precious seconds they had available to pull music and emotion out of a wooden box and some strings.
It seemed they had all learned the same lesson from Auldridge: When a moment is all you have, make it sing.
Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036 | email@example.com