Sporting a new hair cut and looking mighty trim, John Cowan took the stage with a smile that lit up his entire face. The evening performance was pure pleasure during a two hour show of The John Cowan Band's 2007 tour. Cowan's music has puzzled critics as they have tried to pigeon hole his career accomplishments in to an established classification. Purists will tell you his music is not Bluegrass although it is closely related, some will call it New Grass, some will call it progressive bluegrass, still others will call it country, many will tell you it's rock, and more than a few will simply call it acoustic Americana. Whatever you may call it, it sure was smokin' hot at the Narrow Center for the Arts in Fall River, MA.
The difficulty in classification stems from the use of a classic Bluegrass instrumentation and standard breaks but the syncopation and tempo departs from the standard. The band line up included: Jeff Autry on Flat Pick Guitar, Wayne Benson on Mandolin, Shad Cobb on Fiddle, and Tony Wray on Banjo. Each of them is an accomplished musician and each had ample time to showcase their talents during the show. What was really cool was the apparent camaraderie and respect among the band members. There were no egos jockeying for the recognition. Cowan repeatedly introduced the band members, giving each of them the spotlight and often thanking them for the band's success.
When you see acoustic performers like Cowan and his band in such an intimate venue as the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, there is an amazing energy exchange between the performers and the audience. I've seen Cowan perform several times within different band configurations at larger venues such as Merlefest and Greyfox but I've never see his personality shine through like I did during this performance.
|That beaming smile on his face was all it took to know how much fun he was having and how much he enjoys singing. The pictures I took that evening captured his emotions for each song he sung. .|
Cowan's voice, never better, was crisp, clear, and always on pitch with his amazing vocal range. The band's harmony vocals were perfectly attuned to Cowan's infamous tenor voice and sounded mighty fine. The sound crew did an incredible job mixing the instruments. It wasn't too loud despite the hard driving hot licks and smokin' tunes being played in such a small venue. Each instrument could be distinctly heard in the mix without intruding on each other or on the vocals.
During the two hour set, Cowan and the band performed a strong selection of pieces with several selections from their latest project "New Tattoo". Cuts from that project included Red Birds (In a Joshua tree), With a Memory Like Mine, In Bristol Town,and Hold to a Dream. Other highlights were Calling Baton Rouge, Tuesday Afternoon (a Moody Blues Tune), and a Joe Val tune in tribute to a man whom John called his long term friend. The encore song was a tribute to his step-son whom they had lost at the age of 18 – 2 years ago. The song's lyrics, penned by Cowan, were interwoven with Amazing Grace. Its broad message was uplifting recognizing that life can be tenuous and therefore, we must live life to its fullest each and every day. Cowan's introduction to the song gave me a strong sense of his faith. Also during the set, the band performed tunes penned by other band members to be found on their new CD expected to be released sometime this summer. Great stuff.
As I watched Cowan's performance and listened to that incomparable voice in song, it occurred to me how natural it seemed, almost effortless. The way he positioned his head and mouth to produce exactly the right vocal quality as well as how near or far from the mike to produce the right volume for emphasis was nearly flawless. Yet, intuitively you know that for him to vocally perform for two hours with such sharpness requires well trained discipline. To watch him perform is pure energy and joy. Be sure to catch John and the band at Merlefest 2007.
For a slideshow of pictures taken during the performance click here.
For a larger selection of Cowan's work, look here John Cowan