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Hull's musical experiment works

City Winery, Boston, February 1, 2018

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Sierra Hull may be an ace bluegrass player on mandolin, but she sure has an unusual touring line-up.

The child prodigy - Hull released the first of three albums at the ripe old age of 16 with Allison Krauss and Barry Bales of Union Station fame co-producing (she's now 26) - is touring with upright bassist Ethan Jodziewicz (okay, that part is not especially unusual) and on this night, anyway, guest sax man Eddie Barbash from Brooklyn.

So, of course, it would not be appropriate to call this dyed-in-the-wool bluegrass. Instead, it's sort of a left-of-center amalgamation thereof. Consider Punch Brothers as a reference point.

Hull's playing was forceful - something that seems to be necessary if one is going to make their mark as a mando player - yet proficient. Hull was not a huge personality, nor a showboat on her instrument of choice.

Her band mates complemented Hull quite well. The wild card was Barbash, of course, because saxophone and mandolin usually don't share a stage. Barbash did not play the stage hog, but, instead, filled the gaps and more in song after song. A few instrumentals thrown into the mix were particular standouts.

Hull always has benefitted from a sweet-sounding voice, and nothing has changed there. She's not quite Krauss, but approximates the diva close enough to be put in the same breath.

Hull's music would not have particularly capture the bluegrass purists out there. The songs that were more bluegrass tended to be more appealing, although that could have been a matter of taste. And when she brought out opening act Phoebe Hunt on violin along with a local harp player, the sound filled out admirably.

Unusual though the sounds may have been at times, Hull not only offered musical chops, but a vision to take her music in a different direction. Experimenting doesn't always work, but for Hull, it did.

Hunt's opening set satisfied, especially when it was not just her and fiddle as she did on the first few songs. The sound needed to be fleshed more than the limitations of playing fiddle afforded Hunt. With a most pleasant voice, the appearance of the harpist on the closing song added far more punch. So did Hunt' occasional switch to acoustic guitar.