New ideas in old-time garb
by James M. Manheim
If you haven't been to one of the bluegrass concerts mounted periodically at Saline High School, the show on Saturday, November 4, featuring singer, fiddler, and songwriter Laurie Lewis, offers the perfect chance. The concerts are held at the new high school's spectacular auditorium, with one of Saline's famed fiddle ensembles serving as an opening act and getting a master class of sorts with the headliner. Lewis lived in Ann Arbor for a time when she was a girl, and there are still apparently people around the county who remember her; when I saw her play at Manchester's Riverfolk Festival a few years ago, she delivered a crack set and drew a crowd of admirers to her tent afterward in the buggy late-summer heat.
Lewis is a perfect choice for the Saline event: she mixes traditional fiddling with contemporary ideas, blending old-time music and progressive styles in a way that supports her often profound songwriting ideas. It was Lewis's songwriting that I noticed first, when I was listening to WDET's bluegrass show on the road and heard the couplet "You won't drop the stance of a pugilist/But you can't reach for help with your hand in a fist." Lewis has an incredible knack for working modern themes, some of them of an environmentalist cast, into purely traditional structures. One of her best and most celebrated songs is "The Maple's Lament," a fiddle-based number gradually revealing that it is written from the point of view of the wood in a fiddle itself. The wood ties the resonances of its music to the natural world of which it was once a part.
Other Lewis originals, like the wry "Kiss Me Before I Die" (written after Lewis was nearly killed in a crash), draw on the swing jazz Lewis played before she took up bluegrass, and some, like the wedding favorite "Love Chooses You," come closer to the folkish side of contemporary country music. And for every lover of
Lewis's songwriting there will be one equally enthusiastic about her singing or her fiddling. She can sing the bluegrass standards of Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley with the best of them. "I guess," she told the Columbus Dispatch, "the more modal and high and lonesome it gets, the more I love it."
Lewis appears in Saline with her band the Right Hands, featuring her frequent duet partner Tom Rozum and a trio of other great players from the San Francisco Bay area, where Lewis has lived for many years. The band has a new album called The Golden West, and Lewis doesn't get out this way very often. The opening act is Saline's own Fiddlers ReStrung.
[Review published November 2006]