“We just snuck up in there,” Steep Canyon Rangers lead singer Woody Platt modestly told the crowd at Rams Head Live last Friday night. It took a second to realize that he was talking about how he felt when the band won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass album. The North Carolina-based bluegrass band, known for its banjo and fiddle arrangements and performances with actor and comedian Steve Martin, was in Baltimore as part its tour to promote a new album, Tell The Ones I Love.
The concert started on an upbeat, rowdy note with the Southern blues band, Swampcandy. However, the band was far more swamp than candy, as both singer Ruben Dobbs and bassist/percussionist Joey Mitchell looked like they hadn’t washed their hair in a while. The band’s songs were primarily focused on spinning tales. They would introduce some of their songs, such as “Cindy” (a murder ballad) and “Charlie,” with stories about their lives. It was impossible to tell what was true and what wasn’t. Dobbs even insulted Bruce Springsteen at one point.
“After watching Bruce do his thing for many nights, I came up with this song. . .I was inspired by his work ethic, but that’s about it,” he said. Dobbs has a strong, raspy voice that complimented the group’s simple, catchy songs, especially “Drink Whiskey With Me.”
The band’s desire to interact with the sparse crowd was nearly impossible. Some people were mostly sitting at tables and talking over the band, but there was a couple who pulled out some impressive square-dancing moves and people even brought Swampcandy whiskey during “Drink Whiskey With Me,” resulting in both Dobbs and Mitchell each taking two shots during their short performance.
The bottom floor of Rams Head Live became far more packed, mostly with people in their fifties and sixties, as the crowd waited for the main act to come on. However, the upper levels were closed off to make the venue look more crowded, which is pretty rare for Rams Head on a Friday night. Concert-goers usually fill up both the floor and balcony levels during weekend concerts.
When the Steep Canyon Rangers took the stage, the band members’ spiffy suits and ties and the group’s all-around put together appearance was a welcome change from Swampcandy’s grungy T-shirts-and-jeans getup.
Steep Canyon Rangers opened its set with “Come Dance,” from its latest album. Platt’s smooth, enticing voice harmonized with Mike Guggino’s raspier vocals, also accompanied by Graham Sharp’s spot-on banjo playing. The overall effect was a unique barbershop/bluegrass vibe. Nicky Sanders’ fiddle wasn’t too showy, and provided a constant bluesy sound to the song. “Come Dance” was the perfect number to start with because it showed that the band sounded great even without all the impressively complicated fiddle and banjo playing that came later.
After “Come Dance” ended, Platt noted, “I like this place,” and then started “Bluer Words Were Never Spoken,” which, along with “As I Go,” from their previous album, featured a fantastic harmony between the vocalists.
“Stand and Deliver” featured Guggino’s voice, which brought a scratchier, more country sound to the set.
After doing a few more songs from their recent album, the guys took a moment to acknowledge each other.
All of the Steep Canyon Rangers are talented in their own rights. If they didn’t work so well together, it could have been a mess, as each member tried to show off.
However, they all knew when to shine and when to step back, allowing the audience to focus on whichever part was dominant at the moment. At some points, the band would stop to tune, which showed that even though they were having a great time throughout the set, they wanted to make sure they were 100 percent on their game.
Sanders’ fiddle absolutely stole the show in all of his solos reaching impossibly high notes at breakneck speed and not missing a single note.
During these solos, Sharp, whose banjo playing had defined most of the songs, would simply pluck his notes. Sanders and Sharp accompanied each other best during songs such as “Graveyard Fields,” where neither of them overpowered each other while still managing to pull off increasingly complicated rhythms. These up-tempo songs were appropriately interspersed with calmer songs, such as “Long Shot.”
When Charles R. Humphrey III started to play his bass fiddle solo, one of the audience members remarked that it was “some bass porn right here.” Guggino also had mandolin features and solos.
After “Tell the One I Love,” which featured the mandolin and banjo throughout the song, the group pared down its sound for “Hunger.”
Everyone except the bass player, who didn’t smile throughout the song, crowded around the mic. The arrangement for “Hunger” is simple, but allowed for gorgeous harmonies between the four singers.
This showed that the Steep Canyon Rangers could also work as a simple barbershop quartet and provided a nice contrast to the banjo and fiddle-centric set.
The band told the crowd that “it’s been an honor to be up here on stage with y’all” before finishing their set, and then came back on stage to take requests from the audience for an encore.
They decided on “Call the Captain” and “Lovin’ Pretty Women.”
The crowd, which had been very enthusiastic about the entire set, knew every word to these songs, allowing the concert to end on a strong note leading into the weekend excitement.