The other night at Barbes, there was a bluegrass band playing in the back. It was one of those immutably grim, raw, late winter evenings this city has had to deal with lately. Nobody, not even birds or cats, hates rain more than people in the venue business since nobody comes out. This particular moment was the kind where you plug in your phone charger, have a swift one, reconnect with the outside world, then head off to deal with what everyone’s throwing at you.
It would have been more fun to stick around tor the bluegrass band, because they were good. Gene Yellin, leader of the Night Kitchen, was playing guitar, and way over in the corner on the mandolin, expertly picking out a spiky lattice of notes, was Andy Statman. He’d just played a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall – and here he was, chilling with his friends at Barbes, not seeming to care if anyone other than his bandmates had decided to brave the storm.
Statman has been a pillar of the Barbes scene since the very beginning: if memory serves right, his monthly Wednesday night 8 PM residency there is in its sixteenth year now. And he’s the rare musician who’s iconic in two completely different styles: he’s also a virtuoso klezmer clarinetist.
Statman’s next Barbes gig is April 3 at 8 PM. He also has a new album, Monroe Bus – streaming at Spotify – on which he plays mostly mandolin. Although the record is a shout out to his and every other bluegrass musician’s big influence, Bill Monroe, it’s a mix of traditionally-inspired material and acoustic psychedelia. Alongside the rhythm section in his regular trio – bassist Jim Whitney and drummer Larry Eagle – Statman is bolstered by Michael Cleveland on fiddle and Glenn Patscha on piano and organ.
A picture in the cd booklet speaks for itself. It shows Monroe making his way to the stage at a performance in Fincastle, Virginia in 1966. In the background is a sixteen-year-old Andy Statman. Each looks very focused on his individual business; neither seems aware of the other. At this point in time, Statman has been playing even longer than Monroe, the “father of bluegrass,” had then. And it shows: his mandolin style has a rare elegance. His chords and his phrasing often have a deep blues influence, and he gets a full range out of the instrument rather than just picking it lickety-split like so many other bluegrass hotshots do.
Cleveland takes the first, dancing lead as the title track sways along over Statman’s unpredictable changes, the bandleader taking a characteristically edgy, bluesy solo. Reminiscence has some of Statman’s most gorgeous voicings here, although the organ threatens to subsume them. Ice Cream on the Moon is a surreal mashup of Charlie Parker, Romany jazz and bluegrass, with a big breakdown at the end, while Ain’t no Place for a Girl Like You is all over the map, a Leftover Salmon-class blend of gospel, oldschool soul and jamgrass.
There’s a languid southern soul influence in Reflections, driven by Whitney’s bass; then Eagle introduces a clave! Old East River Road has an enigmatic, uneasy haze, then the band take the trippiness several notches higher with the bitingly klezmer-flavored, offhandedly creepy Brooklyn Hop.
The sad, nostalgic Lakewood Waltz has a late 19th century feel, Mark Berney’s cornet looming in the background. Statman’s rapidfire phrasing is on dazzling display in the Statman Romp – again, with distant klezmer tinges – and also in Mockingbird, a brisk shuffle tune.
Stark harmonies from Cleveland and Whitney anchor Brorby’s Blues as Statman rustles and trills overhead. Raw Ride is the album’s most deviously funny track: there’s a little Rawhide and a whole lot of Bob Wills in its briskly shuffling swing. The last track, Burger and Fries is a summery, gospel-fueled midtempo cookout of a tune. It’s hard to think of anyone taking bluegrass further outside the box, and having as much fun with it, as Statman does here.