The Spinney Brothers Red Deer, Alberta
2011 October 23
Presented by the Waskasoo Bluegrass Music Society
Prior to catching Nova Scotia's favourite bluegrass sons in Red Deer this past weekend, I had somehow managed to miss The Spinney Brothers in concert. Now Nova Scotia is almost as far away you can get from Alberta and still be in Canada, so I don't beat myself up too much for this. The quartet has made a handful of Alberta appearances the past couple years, but I hadn't seen them.
I had listened to their CDs prior to booking them for the Waskasoo Bluegrass Music Society, had played them on the radio show, and had heard all the favourable reports about the group's live performance. Still, I was still surprised at the quality of the presentation given by the two Spinney Brothers- Allan, the senior by 365 days, on guitar and lead and Rick on banjo and (mostly) high harmony- and their partners in 'grass Gary Dalrymple (mandolin) and Darryl Hebb (bass).
First class, all the way.
Buoyed perhaps by a positive reception at the IBMA's Fan Fest, the group provided the close-to-sell out audience everything they were looking for when it came to bluegrass music that pulls in more than a little country history and material. Having 'seen it all' when it comes to working with bluegrass bands- the humble, the joyful, the professional, the real and the contrived, the confused, unprepared, and the stoned- I met the Spinney's positive vibe and outward appearance with a bit of cynicism: really, I thought to myself, how can they smile that much? Turns out, every bit of their stage 'persona' is as genuine as the overwhelming talent they unleash when they start picking and singing.
The cynical may criticize the band's practiced but good-natured showmanship, but overall the group comes across as fresh and spontaneous, no small feat after 18 years together as a touring band with only Hebb a newcomer with one year's service. And while much- perhaps too much- is made in the bluegrass world of 'brother harmony', in the case of the Spinneys the accolades are apt.
The performance was outstanding as a whole and the various parts were impressive individually.
Allan Spinney took the majority of the leads and sang with a calm, confident style that was 'just right' for the audience, many of whom understand the high lonesome sound but who more obviously appreciate the 'country'-stylings of a vocalist such as Spinney. He is a very impressive rhythm and lead guitar player, not flashy but clean and spot-on in his changes of intensity.
Rick Spinney takes on the role as the more exuberant brother, less serious perhaps on stage than his long-time musical foil. He took a few leads- notably on the old warhorses The Auctioneer and Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy- but mostly took the high parts while Allan took the low. They exchanged leads throughout the verses and choruses of If I Were Your Brother to excellent effect. His work on the 5-string was more than impressive; he had ample opportunity to both support and lead on tunes including Gitup The Banjo Man, Little Birdie, and Duelling Banjos.
Gary Dalrymple handled much of the emcee work throughout the show. While he sang rarely- perhaps only on the closing I Saw The Light- he more than made his presence known while contributing keenly to the group's overall sound. At times, as on a break midway through a rendition of Silver Wings, his playing was so crisp and controlled that John Reischman's tone and approach was brought to mind. Hanging out in the deep end was Darryl Hebb, who sang about as often as Dalrymple, and spoke only slightly less than he sang. Here is a guy who concentrates on one thing and does it well, as his fancy finger work on the set closer demonstrated.
The band's set list leaned heavily to the countryside of life, especially during the second set. Down the Road led into The Virginia Squires' Chilly Winds. Ron Hynes' Sonny's Dream was performed so acutely that the song sounded bluegrass-made, while the novelty of The Auctioneer was somewhat balanced by He Stopped Loving Her Today; I say somewhat because while Allan was laying out his heartfelt interpretation of the greatest country song ever recorded, Rick was singing the famous Millie Kirkham "ooo-ooo-ooo-ooos" of the song's denouement.
And while I don't ever need to hear I Just Don't Look Good Naked Anymore ever again, there are always several in every audience who are hearing it for the very first time. The highlight for me may have been Going Home, the Marshal Warwick song off their album of the same name.
The evening ended with the very well-constructed Ryan Roberts' song The Sunday Drive as well as a medley of Mule Skinner Blues and the popular Wilf Carter song Swiss Moonlight Lullaby before the encore performance of the previously mentioned Hank, Sr. gospel classic.
While the above gives the impression that The Spinney Brothers overly-rely on the tried and true- and they do plough familiar fields- they keep things most interesting by filling-out their sets with natural humour, positivity, and original and new material. Amongst the many classics were originals including Going Down to Charleston, Next Train Smokin', The Blind Man (written by the Spinney brothers' mother) and Daddy Come Home, a 'lonesome boy in a graveyard song' that was recorded by the band in 1996.
The Spinney Brothers delivered a populist, engaging, and very listenable evening of bluegrass to an audience well-educated to the nuances and sounds of the music. As the audience does after each and every Waskaoo Bluegrass concert, everyone left smiling and claiming that this was indeed the best concert yet.
The Spinney Brothers continue their Alberta swing this week with shows in Sherwood Park and Fort MacLeod before heading to Vancouver and Kaslo, British Columbia. Their next stateside appearances are in Williamsville, NY and then a fest in Wilmington, Ohio.