On Friday, January 13, David Grisman and Frank Vignola went unaffected by the day’s superstitious stigma to play a sold out show in Portland, Oregon.
The Alberta Rose Theater goes full capacity at around 420 people. I arrived early and already there were plenty of people outside with fingers up, hoping for miracle tickets. One guy offered me $100 for my spot, which I graciously declined, and I doubt he made it inside. Grisman (affectionately nicknamed “Dawg” by Jerry Garcia) embodies and brings the spirit of soul-jam to his shows, a spirit unique to him and few peers, like Garcia. It’s a spirit that makes ticket price negligible.
And Vignola (the “Frank” in tour/CD title Frank ‘N’ Dawg Melody Monsters) is not a musician to be dismissed. His CV’s a long, yup, monstrous one, and Les Paul named Vignola among his “five most admired guitarists.” The evening’s music was certainly made all the more delightful by the way the two seemed to surprise each other at points, with extra jangly twangs and crisp bright notes that can never be planned for, Vignola’s fast and fancy finger work playing aptly off Grisman’s mandolin mastery.
“We love to play the songs of The Great American Songbook,” Grisman said at the show, but there was nothing stale or even “standard” about the opening tune, “Till There Was You.” And the third song, “Dawgmatism,” gave us all a hearty jolt of OG bluegrass, Dawg-style.
“I’ll See You In My Dreams” went out to wife Tracy Bigelow Grisman, a badass artist who’s painted and drawn some of the best musicians and creative characters to have ever lived. “We play this one around the house,” Grisman told a rapt audience, soliciting whistles and giddy laughs. Though the song was very distinctly the product of its creator and great Grisman muse, Django Reinhardt, the rollicking mandolin and Vignola’s sophisticated yet playful guitar licks traversed territories all their own.
The only real glitch of the show (Damn you Friday the 13th!) was that the microphones weren’t picking up Grisman’s verbal asides and carrying them all the way to the back. I’d scored a seat fairly close in, so I could hear fine, but while Grisman introduced “Hello Young Lovers,” a fellow in the back shouted, “Can’t hear ya Dawg!” To which Grisman responded, “Listen!” The tone was playful, though, and they just kept right on strumming through “Lovers” and “Gypsy Nights.”
“Well, we’re playing,” he jested, but still took the opportunity to dedicate “Limehouse Blues” to his son, before setting the tune ablaze with Indy 500 fingers and earning yet another standing ovation.
I didn’t detect too many joints being passed around the sit-down, standing room only, theater during the sets but after the intermission a pleasantly green aroma wafted brazenly.
The two continued on with all the cool of any jazz pairing but matched with the wild, laidback cool of the ‘60s. More songs were played to family members and there was a sweet tribute to Garcia. Grisman spoke about his label’s pet project, Acoustic Oasis, which is collecting the cream of over fifty year’s musical crop and releasing it in better sound resolution than before possible. Many of the recordings have never been released and are of intimate sessions with slews of greats. Of the tapes featuring Garcia, Grisman said, “They’re some of Jerry’s best, in my opinion.”
As previously themed, there was more music than talking, however, and the mystery of the third chair was quickly solved when guitarist Vinny Raniolo, who plays regularly with Vignola, joined the duo onstage. Now, if we’d thought there’d been quick pickin’ before, this was a pick-a-thon of three pro pickers and it was a wonder that the smoke alarms didn’t yield. Vignola and Raniolo rocked their shoulders in staccato rhythm, flanking Grisman as he held down the center, back steady and grinning from ear to ear.
This was one of the most beautifully played concerts I’ve attended, and I don’t think I was alone in the sentiment. An encore was nearly mandatory, and Grisman and Vignola came back well prepared. They laid out two Bill Monroe classics, “Last Days On Earth” and “On and On,” off Grisman’s 2011 release, Dawg Plays Big Mon, sounding just as fresh as when they’d first walked on stage.