The devil went down to the Jefferson

Grammy-winning Steep Canyon Rangers amaze, melt faces

When you collaborate with Steve Martin, you mean business. Provided you’re a bluegrass artist or a man named Kato, a partnership like this can only be validating. North Carolina-based bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers teamed up with Martin in 2011, and earned a Grammy nomination for their trouble.

The group took home “Best Bluegrass Album” in 2012, and their latest offering, “Tell the Ones I Love,” is no slouch by comparison. Lead singer Woody Platt and his team took to the floorboards of the Jefferson Friday night to share the new record with Charlottesville.

Bluegrass is fast, and few can beat the Rangers’ pace. Starting off strong, the band played recognizable hits from their latest album.

Lay Myself Down” and the titular “Tell the Ones I Love” hypnotized those present. “Come Dance” invited the audience to do just that, and the rapid banjo picking lain over infectious drumbeats left few in the concert hall standing still.

As good as the record sounds, the Rangers are a different group when seen live. Their energy was on full display, and they appeared to be enjoying the show just as much as those watching.

Mike Guggino on the mandolin is a Wild West saloon’s equivalent of a guitar hero. Wholly focused on his instrument, Guggino plays like an expert.

Sweet mandolin notes danced with the steady banjo twangs. With the other bandmates’ eyes upon him, Guggino took the spotlight to deliver what could only be labeled an awe-inspiring mandolin solo, with virtuosic speed that mesmerized.

Not to be outdone, fiddler Nicky Sanders lay waste to every audience member’s previous notions of competent fiddle-playing. Multiple solos were enthusiastically received, in between overlays of low, rhythmic swoops and picking that lent a spark to the band’s core sound.

While the rest of the band was dressed more or less as one would expect a bluegrass band to present themselves, Sanders appeared in jeans and a black sweater. Looking more like a jazz artist than a country fiddler, he still managed to dance his way back and forth across the stage more than the rest of the group combined.

By the end of Sanders’ final solo, as the supersonic whine of his fiddle cut off and he lifted his bow, cheers resounded from the crowd. In spite of his virtuosity, Sanders kept the instrument in hand rather than repeatedly smashing it over an amplifier.

The Rangers play bluegrass that is stuffed with classic themes, evidenced by the appearance of trains, graveyards, and other tropes in the lyrics imparted Friday. Despite their adherence to fundamentals of the craft, the group still produces a sound that is entirely recognizable as their own. “Tell the Ones I Love” is made up of completely original tracks, and the speed and skill of the performers combined with those new lyrics to make something that has SCR stamped all over it.

As simple as the title is, “Come Dance” shines more for its lyrics than anything else. It perfectly summarizes the experience the band shared with the audience on Friday, telling them “the prettiest lies ever told.”

Instructing the audience to “picture a clear blue sky without end,” the Rangers made those pretty lies come true. The fixtures and shadows above the smoky Jefferson stage gave way, and everyone hearing that serenade could see it.

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