Sunday, October 22, 2006


This past week I saw Fred Eaglesmith play a show in Albuquerque. The show was pretty interesting, with some good songs and a lot of talking between the songs that was satrical remarks directed at the 60s generation gone old (i.e. Eaglesmith). While I could have done without some of that, I am glad I went to the show.

What was really remarkable about the show was the mandolin play of Willie P. Bennett. He had it plugged in and basically played it like a lead guitar. I had never seen this before. It made me think harder about the use of mandolin in modern music.

I am probably more ambivalent about the mandolin than any other instrument. Bill Monroe personally rescued the thing--in the early 20th century, the mandolin was heavily feminized by musicians. Literally. It was seen as a woman's instrument that might be nice to have in a band but no self-respecting band leader would play it. Monroe did though, creating bluegrass music with the mandolin as a centerpiece. In the old-time music bluegrass came from, the banjo, fiddle, and guitar were far more important--one of the real innovations of bluegrass is centering the mandolin.

So mandolin became, and continues to be, a central music in bluegrass music. There isn't a whole lot to say about it until the 1960s. David Grisman is, along with Ricky Skaggs, the most known mandolinists today. Grisman, who is a child of the 60s if there ever was one, is an amazing instrumentalist. He took the mandolin to new places. While this can be pretty interesting, it all got caught up in the jam band movement. Grisman, in large part because of his close relationship with Jerry Garcia, has played a central role in the history of jam bands. This is not so good. While I can still listen to some of the Dead stuff and think it's OK, the bands they influenced are almost all unlistenable and pointless to me.

Many of these bands feature the mandolin. My head about exploded a couple of months ago when I went to see the great James McMurtry. After he left the outdoor stage, a little Portland band played some inside. It was another jam band, with a lot of really wankerish fiddle and mandolin solos. I lasted about 10 minutes. After this, I became really frustrated with how mandolin playing has developed and have begun to fear seeing a band with a mandolin since I figure it means a lot of pointless jams.

That's why it was so good to see Willie P. Bennett tear shit up with his mandolin. He took an instrument that has become tired and went to new places with it. Why can't the mandolin be played like an electric guitar? There is no good reason. What's more, Bennett represents the best of musicianship--he is helping to rethink the traditional uses of an instrument. The use of the cello in Alejandro Escovedo's band over the past decade is another great example. Why not use the cello? There is no good reason not too--it's a wonderful instrument. But few bands do. Hopefully, a few jam band mandolinists see Bennett perform and realize that what they are doing is tired old wankery and that there are multiple ways to play what, at its essence, is a wonderful instrument.