Banjo battle, agnostic gospel and truly classic rock

The Infamous Stringdusters come to the Concert Hall this Thursday

by Chris Aaland

Oh, what to do. Tonight (Thurs., March 25) pits two of my favorite bands duking it out for your discerning ears. It’s a bluegrass battle of the bands – nay, a Battle Royale for banjo slingers – featuring Nashville’s Infamous Stringdusters and North Carolina’s Chatham County Line. Unfortunately, the groups are separated by 49 miles and take the stage at approximately the same time. Unless you have access to the transporter from the USS Enterprise and Scotty can beam you back and forth, it’s doubtful you can do both. So here’s the tale of the tape:

In the blue corner, you have the Stringdusters playing at 7:30 p.m. at the Community Concert Hall, a classy, 600-seat venue. The ‘Dusters gutted out six sets at the 2007 Durango Bluegrass Meltdown due to a cancellation by another national act. They’ve also sold out the Abbey twice. With two full-length albums under their belt, the ‘Dusters are set to release their third effort, “Things that Fly,” on April 20.

Individually, the six ‘Dusters are some of Nashville’s top young guns. They blend a bit of the traditional with a heaping dose of instrumental experimentation. Each member — Travis Book (bass), Jesse Cobb (mandolin), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle), Andy Falco (guitar), Andy Hall (dobro) and Chris Pandolfi (banjo) – is a top session player in Music City. I consider their debut album, “Fork in the Road,” one of my favorite records of the past decade. And, of course, there’s the local tie: Book was a longtime fixture in Durango’s bluegrass scene. You’d think he’s moved back home, given that tonight’s show is his third here this month (one was with his wife, songstress Sarah Siskind; the other was with the Burlegrass All-Stars). Lonesome Stew opens and, given the friendships between members of both bands, one can only hope for some onstage collaborating.

In the red corner, you have Chatham County Line playing at 8 p.m. at the Dolores River Brewery, a funky pub with a dozen or so tables. Chatham was one of the headliners at the 2006 Meltdown, stealing the show with several rambunctious sets. They’ve also played the Abbey twice, most notably a 2004 co-billing with the Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band just days after winning the RockyGrass band competition. They have four albums in their catalog, with a fifth, “Wildwood,” due on July 13.

Chatham has emerged as a major player in acoustic music, with one foot in bluegrass and another in classic country. Singer/guitarist Dave Wilson is a first-rate songwriter, as evidenced by his third-place win at the 2006 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest. Their most recent effort, “IV,” features the two extremes of Wilson’s work: “Chip of a Star,” a pop-sounding love song with an infectious banjo hook; and “Birmingham Jail,” a socially conscious recollection of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. The first time I heard Wilson sing the latter was a few months removed from my visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, located across the street from where the tragedy occurred. Wilson, who is a cut-up and prankster offstage, moved me to tears.

Regardless of which I attend, it will be tough not to think of a backstage suds session with both bands at RockyGrass a few years ago, when the Stringdusters’ Falco and I told Wilson that his whistling to the Scorpions’ “Wind of Change” wasn’t German enough. Mighty fine.

God’s favorite band, the Asylum Street Spankers, plays the Hank at 8 p.m. Saturday. Austin’s irreverent and groundbreaking jug band, the Spankers recently released what is quite possibly the world’s first agnostic gospel album. It sounds funny, but makes sense. For years, the Spankers were the featured band at a weekly gospel brunch in Austin. Regardless of your religious views, there’s no doubting the impact gospel music has had on other American genres. From traditionals like “Down by the Riverside” and “Wade in the Water” to spot-on covers of Blind Willie Johnson’s funeral dirge, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” and the Violent Femmes’ “Jesus Walking on the Water,” their latest live recording is timeless. Longtime followers of such classic Spanker albums as “Mercurial” and “Spanker Madness” know that Christina Marrs, Wammo and company attack everything from punk to jazz to country with vim and vigor.

Some bands consider 10 years together to be an eternity. The Vienna Boys Choir, which entertains at the Community Concert Hall at 7:30 p.m. Friday, was founded in 1498 when Maximilian I called a dozen or so boys to perform at his imperial court. Columbus first sailed across the Atlantic just six years earlier. Today, some 100 boys perform a repertoire from medieval to contemporary. Expect plenty of waltzes and polkas by Strauss, Lanner and Lehar.

The Motet brings its danceable, horn-laden, percussion-driven Afrobeat and Latin funk sounds to the Abbey on Friday.

Kirk James plays solo blues for “Soup for the Soul,” a fund-raiser for the Hospice of Mercy at 5:30 p.m. tonight at the La Plata County Fairgrounds Exhibit Hall.

Also on tap: Ska/punk by Playing in Traffic, appropriately at Ska Brewing tonight; the Miserabillies doing country at the Diamond Belle Saloon at 5:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; the Badly Bent at the Billy Goat Saloon on Friday; Black Velvet (the recently renamed trio of Nina Sasaki, Larry Carver and Randy Crumbaugh) at Desperado’s Bar & Grill at 7 p.m. Friday; Motivator at Pagosa’s Buffalo Inn on Friday; and the roots reggae of the Monk Band at Ska on Monday.

This week’s Top Shelf list recalls more of my favorite Infamous Stringdusters and Chatham County Line numbers:

1. “No More to Leave You Behind,” Stringdusters, “Fork in the Road,” 2007. Andy Hall’s finest hour.

2. “Let Me Love You One More Time,” Stringdusters, EP, 2006. A churning Ralph Stanley cover.

3. “Three Days in July,” Stringdusters, self-titled, 2008. Civil War songs never get old.

4. “Y2K,” Jeremy Garrett with the Stringdusters, “I Am a Stranger,” 2009. Garrett has been carrying this driving instrumental around since his days in the Grasshoppers.

5. “Dark Clouds,” CCL, “Route 23,” 2005. Dave Wilson’s award-winning number.

6. “Bacon in the Skillet,” CCL, self-titled, 2003. Mmmm. Bacon.

7. “Company Blues,” CCL, speed of the Whippoorwill, 2006. A worker’s lament.

8. “Let It Rock,” CCL, “IV,” 2008. Rock ‘n’ roll on banjo and mandolin. •

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