Springtime is almost upon us. The air is getting warmer, the snow is melting, and March Madness is merely days away from getting into full swing. The beginning days of any given season mean different things to different people, but to me the beginning of spring means one thing above all else: bluegrass season.
While a good bluegrass tune is always welcome to my ears, there’s something about spring that pairs especially well with the genre. For that reason, I was excited for progressive bluegrass act The Infamous Stringdusters to take the stage at the Varsity on Thursday night.
Bringing two entertaining sets of jam-friendly string music, the Stringdusters showed why they’re considered among the leaders in their genre.
The band established themselves early on in set one. From the beginning, it was clear what they would have in store for the show: lots of jams. Extended improvisation is an integral part of the band’s shows, and this night would prove no exception, with the first two songs eclipsing 20 minutes total. This was truer in the first set than the second, with the former having a bit looser feel.
That’s not to say the set lacked memorable songs or that the band wasn’t tight. In fact, set one featured many favorites, including maybe the strongest three-song run of the night in “Tears of the Earth,” “Don’t Mean Nothin’” and a cover of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” the last of which appears on their recent covers EP Undercover, Vol.2. The reimagined track wouldn’t be the last from the release, as they would pull from it again early in set two with a take on Allman Brothers’ favorite “Jessica.”
Though everyone in the band took solos at various points, the strongest moments in the set featured slick and efficient tradeoffs between dobro player Andy Hall and fiddler Jeremy Garrett. The chemistry between the two (and among the whole band) was apparent in the way they played off each other, creating the balanced attack that defines their sound. The set ended, fittingly, with an extended improvisational segment that culminated in an explosive peak. The set only lasted around an hour but left a strong impression on the crowd.
The second set, while not straying too far from the blueprint they’d established previously, saw some welcome wrinkles in their sound and approach. While the jams weren’t gone completely, the front end of set two felt a little more tightly structured. This included a few songs that were as close to “traditional” bluegrass as they’d get, as well as a pair of strong covers, one being the aforementioned “Jessica,” and the other a take on The Band’s “The Shape I’m in.” The latter featured vocals and guitar from the opening act, singer-songwriter John Craigie. It wasn’t the first time a bluegrass band has covered The Band, and it won’t be the last, but Craigie and the Stringdusters made it their own, and the crowd responded.
One of the other joys in the second set was seeing the band easily segue from tune to tune. Segues, of course, are common in the Jam world, but on this night the band’s transitions seemed smoother than one would usually expect — a testament to their musicianship, chemistry, and time spent playing together. The band closed with a two-song encore that featured the title track from their upcoming album, Rise Sun. The arrangement was complex, balancing elements of traditional bluegrass with other sounds and ideas. In that way, it was vintage Stringdusters, simultaneously reverent and forward-thinking, and engaging through and through.