Tonight was bittersweet.
Three of the founding members of the pioneering urban bluegrass band the Seldom Scene gathered this evening in Silver Spring to pay tribute to their ailing partner: dobro master Mike Auldridge. Original Scene bassist Tom Gray, shown at left onstage with fellow alumnus John Starling, alerted me at this morning’s Farmers Market that the folks at the Maryland State Arts Council had added the tribute to their annual ALTA (Achievement in Living Traditions and Arts) Awards show as a way to honor Mike’s 2012 NEA National Heritage Fellowship.
The tribute came at the end of an entertaining and informative night.
The Old Bay Ceili Band from Baltimore opened with a spirited Irish set in memory of former ALTA award winner Joe Byrne, the late proprietor of J. Patrick’s Pub. Flutist Laura Byrne told of hearing the master traditional flute player Chris Norman while she was studying classical flute at the Peabody, asking him where she could learn to play that style of music, and being told to go to J. Patrick’s.
Other ALTA award winners honored this evening were the community members of the Sparrow Point Steel Mill, the traditional family bluegrass band The Carroll County Ramblers, and the nation’s second oldest almanac, the 236-year-old J. Gruber’s Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack.
Then the current members of the Seldom Scene, led by founding member Ben Eldridge on banjo, took the stage to kick off the tribute. The first tune began with a recorded version of one of Mike’s beautiful Dobro instrumentals, with the live band and dobroist Fred Travers taking over on the second pass. Starling and Gray soon joined the other members on stage for a heartfelt tribute to their fellow band mate – who played with the Scene for 24 years – and the ground-breaking music they made together.
Starling’s voice was strong as he took the lead on Scene classics such as Dark Hollow. Mandolinist and fiddler Rickie Simpkins added his always tasteful licks throughout the set. Gray told the story of Mike’s slide guitar playing uncle Ellsworth Cozzens, who performed with Jimmie Rodgers in the 1920s, and then sang the Cozzens’ composition Treasure’s Untold. The full band ended the evening with the first tune the Seldom Scene played in public, the Vic Jordan instrumental Pickaway.
Auldridge was too ill to attend tonight’s tribute, but his presence was in the auditorium throughout the evening. His old band mates recreated the magic of his music onstage, musicians such as Mark Schatz were in the audience to pay tribute to his influence, and fans from across the region came together to honor a master musician and a real gentleman.
Thanks to the Seldom Scene – past and present – for a moving, meaningful, and music-filled evening. And to remember Mike’s playing, I’ll end with Auldridge, in a backstage moment, playing – what else – Pickaway.
More to come…