Think Hayseed Dixie playing traditional Bluegrass music with Run DMC delivering the vocals, sounds like it would be a complete car crash? well that’s exactly what I thought about the band that we were about to see, read on to find out how our evening with Brooklyn based Bluegrass/Hip Hop act GANGSTAGRASS unfolded….
What to do on a chilly, breezy Thursday night in the centre of Exeter? Well, you could go eat in one fo the many overpriced themed eateries, maybe take in a movie at the cinema, indulge in a little late night pre Christmas shopping or maybe, you'd be like me and feel drawn to attend The Phoenix venue on Gandy Street where an American Bluegrass/Rap act called Gangstagrass were appearing for one night only, we chose the latter, read on to see how our evening unfolded.
Gandy Street was buzzing, there were street vendors peddling their wares and some of the shops had set up 'pop-up' stalls outside, drawing the punters inside with tasty treats and samples of their offerings. After politely declining an offer of a massage, I headed up to the Phoenix. Inside the venue, it was quite busy for a Thursday evening, I think there was a poetry event happening in another room, the bar area bustling with intellectual looking folk with their neatly trimmed goatees and floppy caps. After a much-needed espresso (we'd been up since 6am), we headed into the main auditorium to catch the opening act.
Rodney Branigan is a Texan by birth but now resides in Frome, Somerset, I knew nothing about this guy and eagerly awaited his performance. He took to the stage and immediately dazzled me as he was playing a traditional acoustic guitar but had a mandolin resting across the top of it, his left hand was producing the bassline via some intricate hammer on wizardry on the acoustic whilst he strummed the mandolin to create the melody, it shouldn't have worked but it did!
He continued with just the acoustic guitar but rather than playing it in a normal fashion, he used his left hand to knock out the notes whilst his right hand slapped, banged and hammered the body to produce a very impressive rhythm, I doubt that many folk would be able to emulate what he was doing given years of practise. He played a very impressive version of 'Come Together' by The Beatles and wowed the crowd with an impressive performance using two acoustic guitars at the same time, standing one moment, then flipping one in the air, he sat down, caught the flipped instrument and played it as if it were an upright double bass with the other guitar across his lap in the traditional style, it really was an impressive sight that had to be witnessed to be believed!
His between song banter was amusing, his dry humour and willingness to mock certain American topics such as Trump, he explained that years ago, they wanted Bush to become president just so he would step down as the Governer of Texas, his banter receiving many laughs from the people in the room, dumbstruck by his performance and eager for more.
Rodney opened for Gangstagrass on all of their UK dates, if you're searching for something a little different, I strongly recommend you check this guy out, after you've witnessed his live show, you'll be singing his praises from the rooftops!
The stage was rearranged, additional microphone stands were deployed and shortly after, the main act took to the stage. I will admit, I knew NOTHING of this band before they strode out and initially, I thought it was a 4 piece Bluegrass band who sounded really tight with a fiddle, acoustic guitar, banjo and dobro (a wooden bodied, single cone resonator guitar for anyone who doesn’t know what one of these is), midway through their opening track, two guys appeared from the wings dressed in baggy jeans and T’s and started rapping….over Bluegrass music, it SHOULDN’T have worked, but it did….and we liked it….a lot!
With the aid of a drum machine providing the beats, they spent no time at all in filling the room with their unique style of music which has been so well received by fans all over. The quality of the output from this band was immense, the eery sound of the dobro made even more so when Landry used her E-Bow to create some incredible ear bending, infinite sustain whilst the rest of the band held the backline together.
The fusion of rap and bluegrass worked so well, songs kicked off in a country style, sometimes with a hint of gospel, after the initial verse, the rappers kicked in, rhymes pouring from their mouths, like a chain gun, rat-a-tat-tat, firing their lyrics into the room, the sound of the band behind them, softening the edges but managing to maintain the raw and effective delivery.
The rappers did a great job of getting the audience involved, many sing-a-longs were orchestrated by them and the audience were more than happy to sing along when instructed to do so. To see so many people bouncing along to the music on a Thursday night in Exeter was a sight to behold, nights like this are normally reserved for a weekend but on this occasion, I think people were more than happy to let their hair down early to really soak up the atmosphere created by these 6 musical masters.
It wasn’t just country bluegrass songs that they played, they slowed things right down on a number of occasions, playing some proper filthy blues riffs, people grinding along whilst the rappers their rhymes perfectly.
The band played a couple more UK dates at the end of November before jetting off to The Netherlands for a handful of dates prior to returning to the USA for a few more shows, do everything you can to check these guys out, you will thank me later!
Review Steve Muscutt
Photography Julian Baird Photography