The mandolin is my favorite instrument. It just is. But after The Steep Canyon Ranger’s rousing 90 minute set at Joe’s Pub on Thursday night, my affinities have shifted towards the fiddle. Granted, they are essentially the same instrument, but when Nicky Sanders picks up that fiddle, there is no stopping him. And also no rivaling him.
Which doesn’t mean the other suit-and-jacket clad members of the band (Mike Guggino on mandolin, Charles Humphrey III on upright bass, Woody Platt on guitar and velvety lead vocals and Graham Sharp on banjo) don’t have equally impressive chops. It is endearing to watch them shift around the stage, generously pointing the audience’s attention to one another’s solos. The central microphone (even despite technical difficulties at this show) was like a magnet, drawing them in to a tight cluster then repelling them swiftly away. There’s a rapport between these men that can only come from a long history of playing together as well as sharing the same dry sense of humor.
“We know a lot of you have favorite bluegrass songs that you love to request,” offered Humphrey about half-way through the set, “And we love to hear requests. So please feel free to come up and tell them to us after the show.”
The set featured many original songs from their new album (Rare Bird) as well as some bluegrass classics and an inevitable tribute to the legendary Earl Scruggs who passed away last week. The fanatic cheers of the audience prompted a second encore (rare for Joe’s Pub which runs on a tight schedule), with Sharp remarking, “I mean, we’re a long way from home. We got nowhere to be.”
The personalities of these men are as distinct as those of their instruments. The banjo is a little older and wiser, the mandolin is sweet and flirtatious, and the fiddle, well, the fiddle is sprightly and eccentric. You know how they say people have the same personalities as the dogs they own? Well the same can be said of Sanders and his fiddle. It didn’t seem unlikely, watching him bounce around as he played, that he might bound off the stage all together in a fit of exuberance. By the end of the final encore song, a myriad of broken bow strings were flying around his head wildly. It didn’t disturb him in the least.
What makes Sanders truly remarkable is the prodigious range he finds on his fiddle (not to mention his joy in playing it). He goes from big and bold to soft and subtle, from sustained to staccato, from slow and tempered to fervent and rapid-fire. He plucks the strings, he beats them rhythmically with his bow or he pulls it across them imploringly. At one point, when he’d all but run out of approaches, he made a fist and knocked on the body of the instrument, because, why not?
Singer and guitarist Woody Platt has a way of cuing the fiddle solos by hollering “G’on!” across the stage to Sanders. That’s all the permission he needs; he takes off like a horse out of the starting gate and everyone else is along for the ride. And with these fellas at his side, it is one helluva ride.