Interesting how life works sometimes.
The last concert I attended (though not your traditional concert) before the coronavirus lockdown was the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, TN.
Now that Oregon finally lifted, some lengthy and arguably rather stringent lockdown measures, less than two weeks ago allowing residents to live their lives again, restaurants returned to full capacity, traffic exploded and the concert calendar has started taking shape. My original plan to finally end the live show drought was next month when Guns N’ Roses stops in Portland along with Mammoth WVH, perhaps the most anticipated opening band in, well, ever.
But instead, the Purple Hulls and Banjo Ben took the honors as this bluegrass act from, where else, Nashville, performed in front of a sold-out crowd of 4,000 on Sunday on the grassy grounds of Athey Creek Christian Fellowship just outside Portland. And, like the Grand Ole Opry, totally not your traditional concert setting, but the amphitheater set-up allowing attendees to sit where they wish, fully resembles the Oregon Zoo Summer Concert Series set-up which houses about the same number of people. Hmm, maybe an opportunity for the church?
Anyways, identical twins Katy Lou and Penny Lea Clark make up the Purple Hulls along with their brother Banjo Ben, aka Ben Clark, who once worked with a young teenager named Taylor Swift and toured the world with the “Love Story” singer while handling the banjo, mandolin, dobro, guitar, and piano. But Banjo Ben set off for new pastures once his sisters came to town with an act of their own. He also hosts a wildly successful YouTube channel teaching anyone who wants to learn how to play the banjo, mandolin and guitar a chance to do so.
Though bluegrass and banjo music generally don’t have a spot on my playlist at home (however I would rank the O Brother, Where Art Thou? album on a Top 10 best soundtracks list), listening live presents a whole nother perspective as I learned last year at the Opry.
In short, it’s completely fun and rather cool.
The Purple Hulls – all three – shred on their given instruments and the speed picking certainly rivals any of today’s rock guitarists. Often mesmerizing, the rhythms laid down and the fretboard work by the Clark twins and brother Ben tend to leave you wondering just what it is you’re doing with your own life. The Purple Hulls played for about 90 minutes and sorry to say I have not a setlist, as I normally would.
At any rate, the Purple Hulls and Banjo Ben played old time hymns, new time hymns (is that a genre?), some classic gospel songs along with their own originals including one about grandmas and one their late father penned. Katy Lou and Penny Lea harmonize wonderfully, and with Ben adding his tenor octave, the stripped down set – pretty much guitar, banjo and mandolin along with an accompanying bass player on a double bass not a bass guitar – highlights the simplicity of listening but also the complexity of playing bluegrass music.
A welcome return to live music began this week in a relatively down home Americana concert on a warm Sunday summer evening that served as a reminder of how music can sooth the soul.