September 19, 2013
“There’s nothing formal about what I’m going to do,” fiddler Bruce Molsky told an expectant audience, inviting concertgoers to the front to dance. While nobody took him up on his offer, his announcement set a casual tone for the performance. (yes, that meant foot-tapping and knee-slapping were allowed and encouraged!)
The Bronx-born musician performed at Hamilton on Thursday, Sept. 12 in the Fillius Events Barn. Molsky demonstrated a vast experience with the genre through a variety of tunes, many of which came from his newest album, If It Ain’t Here When I Get Back (2013). Casually picking at his guitar or banjo in one moment, he would be sawing away on his fiddle in the next. Molsky used sparser instrumentation on tunes with vocals, which luckily did not compromise the quality of the final product.
Molsky began on fiddle with a sequence that included “Norwegian Wedding March” and the western North Carolina tune “Sandy River.” Moving through the melodies with the agility of a seasoned performer, Molsky alternated higher E- and A-string licks with lower double-stop drones. As a soloist should, he coaxed dueling voices out of his violin. He played effortlessly but also humbly, treating Hamilton students and community members to a refreshingly un-showy performance.
After the fiddle sequence, Molsky switched to banjo and vocals with “Cumberland Gap,” a tune that appears on the new record. Then out came the acoustic guitar for Joseph Spence’s “Bimini Gal.” The playful, hummable melody seemed to charm the audience, especially as Molsky skillfully ended it on a high harmonic.
Beckoning the “smaller people,” the children in the audience perhaps up to dance, Molsky continued his first set with “Lazy John.” His clear and ringing voice was the standout in this piece as he crooned about simple living—working all week in the noon day sun and “goin’ to a dance to have some fun.” Molsky finished the set with songs from the Celtic, West African, southern United States and Finnish traditions.
“Folk music has the same purpose for everyone,” Molsky admitted to the audience during the second half of the concert. He (maybe appropriately) followed this piece of wisdom with two tunes from Scandinavia and a Martha Burns cowboy song—“You can’t have a folk music concert without a cowboy song.”
Warm, excited applause prompted Molsky to whip out an old favorite for the encore—“Cotton Eyed Joe.” The crowd-pleaser was well-received, and it brought me back to dance nights at the YMCA family camp on Lake Winnipesaukee. Molsky’s organic interpretation of the folk tune at times offered unexpected syncopation.
“Now I really wanna dance!” my seat neighbor and fellow Hamilton College Orchestra string player whispered to me. And while I gather that many guests felt the same, nobody took the plunge. On another night, under different circumstances—maybe in a crowded pub or at an impromptu hoedown—Molsky’s soulful yet straightforward fiddling would have surely brought crowds to the floor.