Sometime in the middle of the 1970’s, somewhere in middle America, three tour buses collide. They are carrying James Taylor, Flatt & Scruggs, and the band Kansas. The only survivors are the drummers and percussionists. Meanwhile the rest go to heaven and form a band.
No, of course that did not happen…but there’s an earthly band that certainly approximates what that heavenly band might sound like. Formed in Missoula, Montana around 2010, they are known as The Lil’ Smokies. Made up of Andy Dunnigan (dobro and vocals), Matthew Rieger (acoustic guitar and vocals), Jake Simpson (fiddle and vocals), Scott Parker (upright bass), and Matt Cornette (banjo), the band has concocted a schizomusical style all their own, melding foot-stompin’ bluegrass with catchy folk-pop melodies, heartfelt lyrics, and complex arrangements from the progressive rock songbook. And they do it with no drum or percussion instrument in sight.
The Lil’ Smokies recently made their NYC debut at American Beauty on West 30th Street. Playing to a small but energetic crowd (including a handful of fans waving – and wrapping themselves in – a Montana state flag), the band blew through a selection of released and unreleased tunes like a twister through a cornfield. Songs from their two albums including “Mending the Fence,” “Ships,” “High as a Georgia Pine,” and the crowd-pleasin’ “California,” shared the set with YouTube-only tracks like “Feathers” and the beautiful, rambling creation “The Gallery.” Add to that surprise covers of Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” (driven by the spot-on falsettos of Rieger and Simpson), Bacharach and David’s by-way-of-Naked-Eyes “Always Something There to Remind Me,” and an encore featuring Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” and you’ve got one of the most riveting, engaging, and fun live music sets in a long time. And interspersed among these highlights are instrumental hoedowns “submerged in the thick buttery mud of traditional bluegrass” (to quote their website).
Whether you’re a fan of ‘70s singer-songwriters, intricate classical-inspired rock, good ol’ country and bluegrass, or all of the above (hey, even if you like none of the above), please try to catch The Lil’ Smokies the next time they come pickin’ around.